How to turn plastic waste in your recycle bin into profit
Saved from the garbage heap and ready for transformation. Nathan Shaiyen / Michigan Tech, CC BY
People will recycle when they can make money from it. In places where cash is offered for cans and bottles, metal and glass recycling has been a huge success. Unfortunately, the incentives to recycle plastic were weaker. As of 2015, only 9% of plastic waste will be recycled. The rest pollutes landfills or the environment.
Several technologies have now matured that allow people to recycle plastic waste directly through 3D printing into valuable products at a fraction of its normal cost. People use their own recycled plastic to make decorations and gifts, home and garden products, accessories and shoes, toys and games, sporting goods and gadgets from millions of free designs. This approach is known as distributed recycling and additive manufacturing, or DRAM for short.
As a professor of materials engineering at the forefront of this technology, I can explain - and offer some ideas on how you can take advantage of this trend.
How DRAM works
The DRAM method starts with plastic waste - from used packaging to defective products.
A table showing the different ways plastic waste can be turned into custom plastic recycling products.
The first step is to sort the plastic and wash it with soap and water or even put it through the dishwasher. Next, the plastic needs to be ground into particles. A cross-sectional paper / CD document shredder works perfectly for small quantities. For larger quantities, open source plans for an industrial waste granulator are available online.
Next, you have a couple of options. You can convert the particles into 3D printer filaments using a Recyclebot, a device that turns ground plastic into spaghetti-like filaments, which are used by most low-cost 3D printers.
Filaments made with a 3D printable Recyclebot are incredibly cheap, costing less than a nickel per pound compared to commercial filaments that cost around $ 10 a pound or more. As the pandemic disrupts global supply chains, it is even more attractive to make products from waste at home.
The second approach is newer: you can skip the filament making step and use melt particle making to 3D print granulated waste plastic directly into products. This approach works best for large products on larger printers such as the open source commercial GigabotX printer, but can also be used on desktop printers.
Granulated plastic waste can also be printed directly with a syringe printer, although this is less popular as the print volume is limited by the need to reload the syringe.
My research group worked with dozens of laboratories and companies around the world to develop a wide range of open source products that enable DRAM, including paper shredders, recycle bots, and 3D printers with fused filaments and fused particles.
In addition to the two most popular 3D printing plastics, ABS and PLA, these devices have been shown to work with a long list of plastics you are likely to use on a daily basis, including PET water bottles. It is now possible to turn plastic waste into valuable products with a recycling symbol.
In addition, an “eco-printing” initiative in Australia has shown that DRAM can operate on solar-powered systems in isolated communities with no recycling or electricity. This makes DRAM applicable wherever people live, plastic waste is in abundance and the sun is shining - which is the case almost everywhere.
On the way to a circular economy
Research has shown that this approach to recycling and manufacturing is not only better for the environment, but is also highly profitable for individual users who make their own products, as well as for small and medium-sized businesses. Making your own products from open source designs simply saves you money.
A series of photos showing how plastic junk first becomes filament and then can be used on a desktop 3D printer to make a camera bubble tripod.
DRAM allows custom products to be made for less than the sales tax on traditional consumer products. There are already millions of free 3D printable designs - from learning aids for children to household products to fitting aids for those with arthritis. Prosumers are already printing these products in 3D, saving themselves millions of dollars in total.
A study found that MyMiniFactory users saved over $ 4 million in just one month in 2017 by making toys instead of buying them. Consumers can invest in a desktop 3D printer for around $ 250 and get over 100% ROI by making their own products. The return on investment increases when recycled plastic is used. For example, if you use a recycling bot on plastic waste from computers, you can print 300 camera lens hoods for the same price as a single one on Amazon.
Individuals can also benefit from 3D printing for others. Thousands offer their services in markets such as Makexyz, 3D Hubs, Ponoko or Print a Thing.
A skateboard is held in front of a large 3D printer.
Small businesses or fab labs can buy industrial printers like the GigabotX and print large sporting goods like snowshoes, skateboard decks and kayak paddles from local waste for high yields.
Large companies that make plastic products are already recycling their own waste. With DRAM, households can now. If a lot of people start recycling their own plastic, it will help prevent the negative impact plastic has on the environment. In this way, DRAM can provide a path to a circular economy, but it won't be able to solve the plastic problem until it scales with more users. Fortunately, we're already on our way.
3D printer filaments are now listed in Amazon Basics along with other “everyday items,” indicating that plastic-based 3D printers are becoming mainstream. Most families don't have a 3D printer at home, let alone a Reyclebot or GigabotX.
For DRAM to become a viable path to the circular economy, larger tools could be housed in neighborhood-level businesses such as small local businesses, makerspaces, manufacturing labs, or even schools. France is already exploring the creation of small businesses that collect plastic waste from schools to make 3D filaments.
I remember saving box tops to help fund my elementary school. Prospective students can bring scraps of plastic from home (after making their own products) to use DRAM to fund their schools.
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This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Joshua M. Pearce, Michigan Technological University.
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Professor Joshua M. Pearce was funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory (ARFL) through America Makes: the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, administered and operated by the National Defense Manufacturing and Machining Center (NCDMM). He also receives funding from the U.S. Agency for Advanced Defense Research Projects (DARPA), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Agency for Advanced Research Projects (ARPA-E), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) for 3D printing and recycling Projects. Additionally, his past and current research is supported by many nonprofit and for-profit companies in the open source additive manufacturing industry, including 3D, Miller, Aleph Objects, Lulzbot, CNC Milling Parts, Virtual Foundry, Ultimaker, and Youmagine. Cheap 3D filaments, MyMiniFactory, Zeni Kinetic, Matter Hackers and Ultimachine.
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