Although there is currently no universally established, industry-standard recycling service available to all users of 3D printing, there are promising sustainable options already in existence. This article aims to serve as a comprehensive guide focusing on recycling PLA 3D printing waste in the UK.

The Problem of 3D Printing Waste

3D printing waste is a significant concern. Failed prints and rejected support structures contribute to the accumulation of substantial amounts of waste material.

According to a report by HSSMI, approximately 33% of all 3D prints, on average, end up as waste. This implies a substantial environmental burden. In the United Kingdom alone, it is estimated that around 379,000 kg of plastic waste is generated annually through 3D printing, as highlighted in a recent article published by Filamentive in 2023.

 

How PLA 3D Printing Waste Recycling Works

PLA 3D printing waste recycling operates through a range of pathways, including closed-loop recycling, upcycling, and downcycling.

In the closed-loop process, discarded PLA prints are collected and typically returned to the filament manufacturer. Here, the waste undergoes meticulous shredding, washing, and extrusion to produce high-quality recycled PLA filament. This filament can be reintroduced into the 3D printing process, closing the loop and reducing the demand for virgin PLA material. It’s important to note that at the time of writing, no UK filament business is currently offering this ‘closed loop’ business model so this is a theoretical resource recovery method. 

Alternatively, PLA waste can be upcycled, meaning it is repurposed for new applications of higher value. Through creative thinking and ingenuity, waste materials can find new life as unique products, often at a higher price point versus the original cost of the waste. 

Lastly, downcycling offers an avenue for PLA waste to be transformed into input materials for different industries. While this process may not retain the same level of quality as closed-loop recycling or upcycling, it still diverts the waste from landfill and contributes to the circular economy by providing raw materials for alternative markets and processes. 

 

3DTomorrow

UK filament manufacturer, 3D Tomorrow, currently offers a Print Waste Recycling Program:

  1. Collect & colour sort waste as you print – this can be anything from support material to prototype iterations
  2. Box it up
  3. Contact them to arrange return
  4. They’ll hold your material
  5. Distribute to partners who will “produce innovative and unique plastic products”

It’s important to note that 3DTomorrow only accepts waste from their own customers / filament at this time and advises users to make every effort to ensure print waste is colour sorted.

 

ReFactory

The 3D Printing & Filament Recycling Box is made specifically for plastic waste associated with 3D printing or left over filament etc. Customers must purchase a recycling box – either 60L, 90L or 110L – and then fill up the box, call or email ReFactory to arrange a free collection  before ordering a replacement box if / when customers decide to continue their recycling journey.

It’s worth noting that for PLA plastics, they offer a specific Biodegradable Plastics box. Furthermore, this service is currently only available in the UK. ReFactory also specifically stipulated that the box cannot weigh more than 20 kg.

Based on their biggest (110L) box at a cost of £108, this equates to a recycling cost of £5.40 per kg, inclusive of Shipping & VAT. 

3D Printing Waste – PLA Recycling

3D Printing Waste (3DPW) offers viable end-of-life solutions for 3D-printed waste that is not currently recycled or reused, thus preventing further plastic pollution of land and marine environments. To recycle PLA 3D printing waste, choose a preferred recycling box and place an order which will be dispatched within 48 hours on business days, Customers will then need to fill up the selected box with waste PLA materials exclusively before notifying 3DPW to make arrangements for collection from the customers. Location. Each order includes one reusable 3D Printing Waste recycling box and four reusable zip-ties to securely fasten the box in transit.

One received, 3DPW offers landfill diversion via upcycling, recycling (downcycling) and pelletising for secondary market resale. 

PLA Waste Recycling: Towards Sustainable 3D Printing

In conclusion, while a universally established, industry-standard recycling service for all 3D printing users is currently lacking, there are encouraging sustainable options available. These options offer a means to effectively reduce plastic waste and improve recycling rates specifically for PLA 3D printing. It’s important to consider various factors, including budget, compatibility (such as companies accepting only their own waste), and convenience in terms of logistics. By exploring the available options and finding the best fit for your specific circumstances, you can actively contribute to reducing plastic waste and promoting responsible recycling practices for PLA waste within the 3D printing community.