Feb 16, 2017 | By David

We report on the many exciting, ingenious, and life-changing developments in 3D technology on a daily basis, but managing the waste products produced by the 3D printing process is something that is not considered perhaps as much as it should be. A new initiative by students at UC Berkeley is intended to tackle this specific issue. The 3D Printer Filament Reclamation Project aims to reduce the environmental impact of 3D printing on campus, as well as increasing its efficiency.

Ever since 3D printing became a popular manufacturing technology, the California-based research university has been a key figure in the field, implementing 3D technology in prosthetics and architecture, amongst other important areas. Currently there are over 100 3D printers on campus—great for research, but responsible for producing over 600 pounds of plastic waste each year.

Nicole Panditi and Scott Silva, two students working for Berkeley’s Student Environmental Research Center, have established a new scheme that will enable all the campus’ plastic waste from 3D printing to be recycled. Their system takes any waste plastic, grinds it up and melts it down, before reshaping it into a new spool that can be used for new projects. Although there are already similar systems in place on a smaller scale (some labs buy only recycled filament), the 3D Printer Filament Reclamation Project will go much further, offering a single solution for plastic waste across the entire campus.

Waste from the 3D printing process is a particular issue at Berkeley, because of how the technology is being used. Their 3D printers are easily accessible to all students, from experts to absolute beginners. This is definitely encouraging for the future of the technology, but what it means is that a lot of mistakes are made, and a lot of waste is produced. According to Panditi, a mechanical engineering student, up to half of all 3D printing projects on the campus will initially fail. "In rapid prototyping, you’re making iteration after iteration until you get it perfect." Due to the cheapness of materials and the potential for experimentation, there will be many failed attempts, and previous iterations of projects will simply be thrown away. '‘And that’s where all the plastic trash comes in.''

The plastic most commonly used for 3D printing on campus is PLA, a bio-based plastic that is marketed as compostable. However, most recycling facilities, including the one used by Berkeley, don’t allow enough time for the decomposition to take place. Although the process can take up to 120 days for PLA, facilities will tend to transfer any remaining material to a landfill after the normal 45 day cycle. The college currently uses Republic Services West Contra Costa Landfill in Richmond, which has claimed that it will increase the length of time that these plastics stay in the compost cycle, but these changes haven’t yet been implemented.

The 3D Printer Filament Reclamation Project has been spearheaded by Cal Zero Waste, whose aim is to decrease all waste on campus and recycle materials as much as possible, particularly plastics. Lin King, manager of Cal Zero Waste, has a vision of plastic waste from 3D printing at Berkeley being an entirely closed loop, where the plastics would never have to leave campus. ''We would provide Berkeley-produced recycled filament," he says, "and any discarded items would be sent right back to us." This would drastically lighten the carbon footprint of the college’s 3D printing work.

Photos credit: UC Berkeley

So far, the 3D Printer Filament Reclamation Project has had some success, but the team are currently using a kitchen blender to break down the plastics. The inefficiency of this method has led them to start a crowdfunding campaign, which aims to raise $5,000 to buy a grinder and other machinery that will be essential to the recycling process. It’s encouraging to see a group of people working hard to ensure that 3D printing won’t have a negative impact on the future of the planet. This will only enable more innovations at Berkeley and contribute to the positive impact the technology will have on the future of society.


Source: Anne Brice / UC Berkeley


Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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