May 4, 2016 | By Alec

Remember the Dutch social enterprise Reflow? In early 2016, this startup revealed an interesting and economic solution for cleaning up the growing waste mountains in the developing world: a 3D printing ecosystem that recycles PET waste by turning it into ethical filament. Not only will this make 3D printing more environmentally friendly, it can also greatly improve the lives of people in developing countries by providing waste pickers with livable wages. The Dutch startup has been working hard to set up small production facilities in Africa and other developing regions, and has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to sell their ethical PET filament rolls for a competitive price.

In countries such as Tanzania, almost all trash is illegally dumped resulting in shanty towns that are packed with waste. In the country’s capital city of Dar es Salaam, waste pickers earn less than $1.50 for a twelve hour day of collecting waste, which then ends up in landfills or gets burned. What’s more, the waste pickers are social outcasts that live in atrocious circumstances. Fortunately, the team at Reflow has come up with an intriguing solution: the establishment of 3D printing ecosystems that not only provide makers with affordable recycled filament, but also improve the livelihood of waste pickers.

It’s a solution that takes full advantage of the ongoing 3D printing revolution, that is increasingly reaching emerging economies as well. Africa in particular is seen as a growth market, where decentralized production could give a huge boost to small businesses by bypassing existing economic roadblocks. African startups can of course import expensive filament, but they are already surrounded by plastic materials. Under Reflow’s guidance, waste pickers can be paid livable wages to collect PET waste that can be turned into 3D printing filament at local facilities. Up to 30 percent of the profits can be passed on to the local pickers, while the filament itself can provide a sustainable boost to innovation in that same region. And, of course, the waste mountains can start to shrink.

It’s a fantastic concept that is also supported by Reflow’s excellent technological innovations. They have developed a <$1,000 extruder that can convert PET waste into filament, which is already being used in several small-scale production facilities all over the world. As the startup’s founder Jasper Middendorp explained, the idea was born out of his experiences in Kenya. “Just seeing waste collectors, how they live, what they have to do for the plastic, and how they struggle to support their families,” he recalled. “It started from seeing what are the ways we could help waste collectors improve their lives, and what are the high value products we could make.”

For these reasons Middendorp decided to help developing countries exploit a disparity in the 3D printing industry. Even though filament usually costs more than $25 per kilogram, plastic itself costs as little as seven cents per kilogram, and can be recycled at a very low cost. Combine that with a growing demand for filament (According to a recent Gartner prediction, the 3D printer market will continue to double in size over the coming years), and there’s a huge opportunity to make cost-effective recycled filament.

The ambitious startup is currently working hard to expand their production facilities, and is exploring several ways to set up a sustainable economic ecosystem. 120 PET bottles can be turned into a single kilogram of filament, and has the economic power to increase picker wages by up to twenty times. “The true magic of 3D printing as a tool can only be unleashed when we direct it at real world problems and put it in the hands of those who need it the most. That's why we invest 25% of our profits into exciting local manufacturing initiatives, from 3D printers made from e-waste to small scale CNC milling equipment,” Middendorp says. This will, he argues, create local economic value and thus more jobs.

ReFlow's first goal is to complete their first 5000 rolls of recycled PET filament – made on site in Tanzania with the help of local partners. According to ReFlow, its quality is completely up to par with market standards. Yesterday, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to make this recycled filament available and gather the funds to expand their enterprise. The rolls are available for the competitive price of just €25 as an early bird special (around $28 USD). Fantastic 3D printed works of art made with recycled PET are unlocked with higher bids. If you’re interested in backing this fantastic cause, check out their crowdfunding campaign here.

If the campaign is successful, the gathered funds will go to extending their production capacity in Africa. The ambitious company is also looking to other cities in developing countries. “We think the technology can actually mature in these countries. A lot of the problems the technology solves around distribution and transport are bigger there,” he says.

Over the next few years, they hope to sell up to 50,000 kg of filament. If successful, that would mean up to 6,000,000 plastic bottles are removed from the streets and up to $200,000 will be directly funneled into low income jobs. This 3D printing ecosystem can have a huge impact on the daily lives of the poorest in the world.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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