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Why There isn’t a Mainstream 3D Printing Waste Recycling Service

As an environmentally-conscious 3D printing filament brand, we are continuously engaged in the discourse around the problem of 3D printing waste, and have previously been transparent on the internal challenges of receiving waste 3D prints (to recycle). To further explain the current situation – as of July 2020 – we thought we would explain, in greater detail, some of the barriers which prevent a mainstream, 3D printing recycling service being viable. 

Note: we are aware of the great work done by TerraCycle – specifically their 3D Printing Materials Zero Waste Box. Feedback from some of our customers suggests their pricing is quite high (approx. £8/kg for their Large box), plus given they are selling a product, we feel this is significantly different to a proposed service (waste management).

(Lack of) Material Standardisation

There are several material options for FDM / FFF 3D printing. This was exemplified in early 2019 when we sent-out a Material Sustainability Survey to customers and industry contacts. 

As you can see from the table below, many different materials are being used – including, but not limited to: PLA, PETg, ABS, TPU, Nylon, ASA and Polycarbonate. 

Whilst this material variety is certainly beneficial for the applications of 3D printing, it is unfortunately a barrier to the efficiency of recycling 3D printing waste. 

Transnational waste management specialists, Veolia, also highlighted the problem of (non)standardised polymers – calling for greater uniformity in the materials used to enable collection and recycling of materials “without worries about obscure elements contaminating the process”.

Contamination Risk

Linked to the above, the usage of several 3D printing materials poses a risk of contamination. Many 3D printed parts look similar, even if they are produced from different polymers – e.g. PLA and PETG. Without proper sorting at source, there is a high risk of the waste returned being made up of various polymers as opposed to the intended, singular waste stream. As reported by All3DP, “contaminating one type of recycled plastic with another can seriously reduce the strength and longevity of the final material”.

Whilst technology such as NIR optical sortation can identify & sort different polymers, the technology is still its infancy, and it has been reported that standards of quality and yield achieved by NIR optical sorting facilities vary enormously

PLA Problem

If we were to see material standardisation – whilst also reducing (if not eliminating) contamination risk – it is almost certain that PLA would be the material of choice, as more than 95% of 3D printing users use it. However, PLA could be viewed as a victim of its own success.

PLA is a bioplastic – which basically means it’s a plastic made from plant / biological material, instead of oil. Whilst recycling PLA is technically possible, it is not (currently) practical. Because PLA is of different origin to regular plastic, it must be kept separate when recycled, otherwise it can contaminate the recycling stream – thus making such streams unsaleable. Furthermore – as reported by the BBC – technology for plant-based compostables has come so far that it is hard to tell which is plastic and which is bio-plastic (PLA). In Wales, this has ultimately led to PLA products – such as food & drink containers – ending up in landfill. 

Whilst PLA is marketed as biodegradable, it’s important to note that academic research has proven PLA is only biodegradable under industrial / anaerobic composting conditions no evidence exists to prove biodegradability in soil, home compost or landfill.

The Guardian found that only a handful of anaerobic digesters exist (in the UK, at least), and even then without a centralised infrastructure, the average consumer is unable to access such facilities.

Quality Control

A more general problem with recycled (PLA) plastic is the impact on quality. An academic study found that there were “significant deteriorations in most mechanical properties after three recycling cycles” – which basically means that even if waste could be successfully separated, and reprocessed, the filament produced would be inferior. To counteract this, virgin polymer can be added (percentage compounding) however, this may ultimately negate the environmental benefit as eventually, the virgin material needed will be greater than recycled plastic (in ratio). 

Reverse Logistics

Even if contamination and quality barriers were overcome, we still have the headache of (reverse) logistics. 

Plastic has a high volume-to-weight ratio which can make collection less efficient than the collection of other recyclables that inherently weigh more – this is a major reason why plastic waste recycling rates are low in general. In a nutshell, plastic is expensive to transport. 

Furthermore, as of July 2020, we do not yet manufacture in-house, so any returned waste would need to be sent to one of our production partners – possibly via a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) – which presents further operational challenges. 

Economics

As the saying goes “Money makes the world go round”. In this context, any 3D printing waste recycling service needs to be financially viable

Example costs include, but not limited to: 

Shipping (inbound & outbound)

Manufacture of boxes / cartons / bins 

Storage

Inspection → Separation → Reprocessing

Manufacturing

Administration

Sales & Marketing

Furthermore, Willingness to Pay (WTP) will inherently vary across customer segments – i.e. a business may be more inclined (and capable) of paying for waste management, as opposed to an individual (hobbyist). 

The business model itself will also influence pricing – for example, if a market-viable, 100% recycled PLA could be produced from recycled 3D prints, it could be viable to absorb (some) recycling costs, to then be offset by product sales. However, should plastic waste streams need to be processed by external recycling partners, such costs would need to be passed onto the consumer – be it through product pricing and/or a separate cost for waste management – i.e. a service charge.

Conclusion

Filamentive Recycled PLA Filament

“Recycling only works when there’s someone on the other side of the equation”.

To enable an efficient 3D printing waste recycling service, we need to find solutions to each individual challenge, as opposed to tackling one giant problem. If we do so, those involved in the value chain – from PLA manufacturers, through 3D printing filament suppliers and retailers, and eventually 3D printer operators – can implement the required actions they are in control of, ensuring each piece of the puzzle is solved – in theory, at least! 

Despite the challenges, recycling 3D printing waste has long been an aspiration of Filamentive – and no doubt others involved in the industry – and we’re continuously engaged in research surrounding the possibility of closing the loop in FDM / FFF 3D printing.

If/when such a service becomes operationally and financially viable, we will be one step closer to achieving a Circular Economy and reduce – if not eliminate – plastic waste within 3D printing.

Important Notice: Filament Stock Update

1 July 2020

As many of you are most likely aware, we currently have very low stock levels of most products. This post serves as an update on the situation: advising when stock will be available and detailing the measures we are implementing to minimise the possibility of future stock-outs.


What are the main reasons for the stock shortages?

Ultimately, we are responsible for managing our inventory to avoid such issues, however, it must be noted the last three months have been unprecedented, due to:

Business uncertainty related to COVID-19, leading to conservative sales forecasts (initially)
Significant order volumes to satisfy demand for 3D-printed PPE to combat COVID-19
Surge in demand with less-than-usual supply due to fast growth of customer base (linked to above)
Extended production lead times due to industry-wide demand – from 3-4 weeks (usual timescale) to >12 weeks


When will stock be available?

We anticipate replenishment of key lines from 1 July – with the bulk of stock becoming available between 8th – 22nd July. This is not for definite so please account for ± 1 week.

Please Note: Only in-stock products visible on our website to maximise visibility of available products and easier navigation.


What actions are we taking to reduce lead times?

Minimised packaging at source (e.g. remove outer box) to expedite process and availability – without compromising quality
Priority production of key products (e.g. PLA, PETg) over more ‘exotic’ less-popular product lines
– Offer multiple product weight options (e.g. 750g, 1 kg and 2.3 kg)
Postponed product development until Q4 2020 to allocate resources effectively


What actions are we taking optimise stock management?

– Utilising updated AI-led inventory system with demand forecasting capability
– Implementing controlled stock release (i.e. not release all qty at once to manage order flow)
– Moving to larger premises by (Early) Q3 2020 to enable greater stockholding and improved operations
Streamlining inventory by discontinuing low-performance product lines – mainly 2.85mm, 1 kg – please note: we will still offer 750 g and / or 2.3 kg variants (dependent on product popularity).


We strongly advise:

Proactive ordering (i.e. if you typically order 1-month supply, consider to 2-3 month buffer).
Communicating with relevant stakeholders within your organisation to enable efficient ordering
– Ordering from our resellers / stockists – see list of Resellers here (enquire directly with the reseller/s)
– Considering alternative materials (e.g. PETg)


Whilst we are grateful for increased sales at this uncertain time, we are naturally frustrated to suffer regular stock-outs which inevitably affects your 3D printing workflow and for that, we sincerely apologise.

We’re working tirelessly to meet demand but it is certainly a challenge – not just for us but across the filament market.

The silver-lining is that such circumstances have presented us with an opportunity to improve our operations and whilst certainly painful in the short-term, it can only benefit both us and our valued clients going forward.


Should you wish to discuss this matter further, please don’t hesitate to contact us:

E:info@filamentive.com

T: +44 (0) 333 366 0020.

Thank you for your continued patience and support.

The role of 3D printing during COVID-19 pandemic

Problem

Proto21 made 1000 face shields for Dubai Police using Filamentive rPLA

On 3 March 2020, The World Health Organization (WHO) warned that severe and mounting disruption to the global supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) is putting lives at risk. The need for PPE for frontline workers is further exemplified by the fact that 10 percent and 20 percent of coronavirus cases are health care workers.


According to a BBC investigation, there were no gowns, visors, swabs or body bags in the government’s pandemic stockpile when Covid-19 reached the UK.


3D Printing

In response to the PPE shortage – namely face shields – the 3D printing community mobilised to offer a solution.

Lancashire3D Ltd operate a 3D printer farm using Filamentive materials


For those unfamiliar with 3D printing, it is a broad term for a group of manufacturing technologies that enables a physical part to be created from a digital file. Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) – also know as as Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) – is one of the main types of 3D printing, in which a thin plastic wire (known as filament) feeds a 3D printer; the print head melts it and extrudes it onto a plate, building the object layer-by-layer. 

As summarised by a 2016 DHL Report, 3D printing enables:

Lower number of production steps to design, prototype and manufacture highly complex and/or customised products

Faster delivery time through on-demand and decentralised production

Lower logistics and production costs 

Higher sustainability and efficiency 


Enabling Distributed Manufacturing

Prodpoint – a London 3D printing business – using Filamentive PETg to make PPE visors

The democratisation of 3D printing has led to millions in use worldwide. Whilst many designs have been created, it’s the Prusa Face Shield which emerged as the de facto 3D-printable version, following approval from Czech Ministry of Health. The file is downloaded for free (and has been more than 200,000 times), optimised in 3D software, and finally printed as many times as required.

Countless 3D printing operators joined forces, mobilising a ‘Maker Army’. From hobbyists in their own homes through to major organisations such as Cisco, the whole 3D printing community has banded together for greater good.

This “citizen supply chain” is a textbook Theory into Practice implementation of distributed manufacturing – defined by Nesta as a decentralised network whereby “goods can be manufactured on-demand within miles (or even metres) of their point of use”.

Prusa Face Shield

Organisations such as 3DCrowd UK have emerged – managing a network of 8,000+ volunteers to serve as an easy-to-access source of PPE. Filamentive have supported this group – as well as others, such as Makers4TheNHS – with discounted 3D printing filament, funded by the generosity of the general public and corporate sponsors. 

As reported by BBC, there doesn’t seem to be any official guidance for healthcare workers about the use of 3D-printed PPE, however, given the circumstances, the Government and the relevant Healthcare Bodies are certainly not discouraging it. The need for pragmaticism was perfectly summarised by Gary Riches (3DCrowd UK volunteer): “If we worry too much about whether it’s 100% perfect then nobody who needs it will get it”


Examples of 3D Printing Applications

In recent weeks, Filamentive users – as well as the wider 3D printing industry – have been using 3D printing to combat the impacts of COVID-19.

Ventilator splitters 3D printed using Filamentive PLA 3D printer filament


UAE-based Proto21 recently collaborated with Dubai Police for their requirement of face shields. In just 8 days, 1000 3D-printed face shields were made using Filamentive recycled PLA 3D printer filament.

Furthermore – in response to a pressing need for more ventilators to treat critically ill patients – the same company 3D-printed ventilator splitters for a Sharjah Hospital. 250 of these parts were produced in just two days. 

In Reading, UK, Alex Gibson of 3D printing company Edumaker collaborated with Cisco, RACE (business unit of the UK Atomic Energy Authority) as well as Reading University and Oxford Academic Health Science Network to set-up a 3D print farm and assembly line – capable of 300 plus visors a day, to help support local NHS trusts.

Beyond face shields, FormLabs is now using 250 printers in its Ohio factory to manufacture 100,000 nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing each day.


Towards Agile Supply Chains

Whilst increasingly commonplace in industry, research by Sculpteo indicates that prototyping and proof of concept are still the two main applications of 3D printing overall. However, this may be a watershed moment for the technology – as concluded in this Forbes piece, “Perhaps this crisis will open more supply chain practitioners’ eyes to the possibilities of 3D printing”. 

Compared to traditional manufacturing techniques such as Injection Moulding, 3D printing does not involve tooling, setup costs, or other associated costs. It therefore challenges the very notion of economies of scale. Generally, the cost-per-part is virtually the same, whether you’re producing one piece, or a thousand!


Sustainable Future

Filamentive 3D printer filament made from recycled materials

In an increasingly environmentally-aware world, sustainability cannot be ignored. Whilst fundamentally less wasteful than traditional, subtractive manufacturing methods, the use of plastic as a feedstock has the potential to exacerbate the global plastic problem unless we can find sustainable solutions. This is why at Filamentive, we prioritise recycled plastics, minimising the amount of virgin material used to manufacture 3D printing filament – limiting finite resource use, reducing plastic pollution, and enabling Circular Economy.

Whilst there is certainly room for further refinement, 3D printing could be a much-needed, shining light amidst these dark times – catalysing quick, low-cost, sustainable, local manufacturing.

The hope is that greater awareness brings greater action.

Chemical Resistance of 3D Printing Filament

Scientist conducting a chemical test of a particular 3D printer filament

We frequently receive questions regarding the chemical resistance of particular materials / filaments for 3D printing. In response, we’ve created a Chemical Resistance Information Guide.

We have also summarised chemical resistance per material below (H= High Resistance, VH = Very High Resistance).

Water – PLA (H) PETg (VH), CF-PETg (VH), ASA (VH), ABS (VH), ePLA (H), ONE PET (H)

Acids – PETg (VH), ASA (VH), ABS (H)

Bases– PETg (VH), CF-PETG (VH), ASA (VH)

Alcohols –PETg (H), CF-PETG (VH), ASA (VH), ABS (H)

Hydrocarbons – N/A

Ketones –N/A

Ethers –N/A

Fuels –PETg (H), CF-PETG (H)

Salts – PLA (H), ASA (VH), ABS (VH), ePLA (H)

UV –PLA (H), ASA (VH), ABS (H), ePLA (H)

Oils – PLA (H), PETg (VH), CF-PETg (VH), ASA (H), ePLA (H)

Download Chemical Resistance Guide Here

Important Notice: COVID-19

Business as Usual

In response to enquiries related to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can confirm that we are currently fully operational.

Being Proactive 

The health, safety and wellbeing of our people, customers and suppliers is of paramount importance. As a business we are rigorously following official NHS guidance to avoid catching and spreading coronavirus – including Stay at home advice should any employees develop symptoms.

Management of the business centre in which we are located have also imposed proactive measures, including (but not limited to):

Hand-washing facilities and hand sanitiser available throughout premises

Closing all meeting rooms 

No third-party visitors 

Impact on Customers

We are in constant communication with key partners. Production is unaffected however, we have experienced a notable increase in sales in recent days, which may impact stock levels of some products in the short-term. Naturally, we are being proactive and aim to increase buffer stock of best-sellers to meet high demand. Whilst we are certainly not recommending ‘stocking up’ it may be worth considering should you feel the need to do so to mitigate uncertainty.

Public Health England (PHE) has advised that people receiving parcels are not at risk of contracting the coronavirus. From experience with other coronaviruses, we know that these types of viruses don’t survive long on objects, such as letters or parcels.

MARCH 31: SAME-DAY DISPATCH SUSPENDED DUE TO HIGH VOLUMES & EARLIER COURIER COLLECTION TIMES.

UK & EU Orders – Both Royal Mail (orders <2 kg) and Parcelforce (orders ≥2 kg) have advised changes to delivery procedure and suspension of UK service guarantee, plus the delivery aim for express9, express10 or expressAM is by 12pm.Further guidance here.

International Orders – For international orders (typically non-EU), we procure courier services from online providers. Their guidance can be read here at the following links:

Parcel2Go

TransGlobalExpress

Further Guidance

We are actively monitoring UK government response and will implement further measures accordingly if/when instructed. As said, until then, it is business as usual.

Should you wish to discuss this matter further, please don’t hesitate to contact us:

E: info@filamentive.com

T: +44 (0) 333 366 0020.

We face challenging times – rest assured we are doing our utmost to guarantee the wellbeing of all involved with Filamentive, whilst also minimising disruption to our day-to-day operations. 

Our well-wishes extend to all customers, suppliers and partners – thank you for your continued patience at this uncertain time.