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Recycling Failed and Waste 3D Prints into Filament: Challenges

In response to growing interest into the area of recycled filament and the regular enquiries we receive regarding failed/waste 3D print recycling, we thought we’d take the time to clarify our position – this article specifically will focus on the challenges preventing us offering such a service (currently). 

Do you accept 3D printing waste?

Can you recycle failed prints?

Will you recycle our PLA waste back into PLA filament?

The example quotes above are just an overview of the types of emails, calls and enquiries we receive on a daily basis. As a provider of 3D printing filament made from recycled plastic, we feel it is necessary to explain the current challenges of recycling failed & waste 3D prints into recycled 3D printer filament.


Environmental Need

Whilst at its core 3D printing is fundamentally less wasteful than traditional, subtractive manufacturing methods, academic research has found that “material sustainability is an issue that can no longer be ignored due to wide adoption of 3D printing”. The use of plastic as a feedstock has the potential to exacerbate the global plastic epidemic unless we can find a sustainable solution.

How Filamentive Produces Filament

Sustainability is at the heart of our business model. Where possible, recycled materials will be used to produce our 3D printer filament – we are the first filament brand to declare the recycled content of all 3D printing filament products, in accordance with ISO 14021.

Material sourcing

A careful selection criteria is in place in order to guarantee quality, consistent waste streams. We use both post-consumer waste – for example recycled PET bottles to produce our ONE PET filament, as well as post-industrial waste – such as material diverted from the waste stream during a manufacturing process, which is how we produce our PLA filament. 

Manufacturing

Plastic filament for 3D printers is produced by a process known as plastic extrusion. This process starts by feeding plastic material (pellets, granules, flakes or powders) from a hopper into the barrel of the extruder. The material is gradually melted by the mechanical energy generated by turning screws and by heaters arranged along the barrel. The molten polymer is then forced into a die, which shapes the polymer into the shape of filament – typically either 1.75mm or 2.85mm in diameter. The extrusion work is currently outsourced to our specialist producer who are able to guarantee quality, consistency and manufacturing at scale. 

Quality assurance

All feedstock streams are meticulously checked to ensure homogeneity. During extrusion, filament is measured by lasers from 2-axes, with an alarm bell sounding if the diameter falls outside our high standards. Filament is then wound onto bulk spools for visual inspection before it is put onto the individual spools to be packaged. Each batch produced undergoes a rigorous 3D printing test; if we’re not happy with the print quality then it won’t leave the factory, simple as.


Challenges

Quality control – High quality filament is essential for high quality 3D-prints. Should we ever begin to accept returned 3D printing waste, it is very difficult – perhaps impossible – to verify that the returned plastic is entirely Filamentive material. There is variation between PLA formulas – let alone different materials altogether – and so if the waste-stream is contaminated, the filament extruded will unusable. Furthermore, an academic study found that were significant deteriorations in most mechanical properties after three recycling cycles” – which basically means that even if waste could be successfully separated, the filament quality would be very low, and in order to maintain mechanical properties, virgin material needs to be added which may negate the environmental benefit. 

Logistics – Plastic has a high volume-to-weight ratio which can make collections less efficient than the collection of other recyclable materials that weigh more. This is a major reason why plastic waste recycling rates are low in general. In a nutshell, this basically means plastic is expensive to transport which is barrier for customers and suppliers alike. Also, as we do not yet manufacture in-house, any waste would then need to be sent to one of our production partners which will incur transport emissions and perhaps offset some – if not all – environmental benefits. 

Economics – As with any business strategy, the financials need to be viable. Should customers not be willing to send their waste back at their cost, we would need to add the cost of waste collection and recycling into our product price. Whilst this would make sense for customers for others it would be unfair if they are not taking advantage of a service they are in-directly paying for.

Market viability – even if all the the above challenges were addresses, there are still many market factors to consider, such as:

  • Would we need to create a new brand/sub-brand for this new filament?
  • What price are customers willing to pay for such a product?
  • If filament cannot be created whom can we sell/send waste to? 

Plastic bottles being collected by our partner, Tridea


Moving forward

Despite the challenges, recycling 3D printing waste has long been an aspiration of ours and we’re continuously researching the viability of a waste management service. Offering such a service one-day will truly help us move one step closer to achieving a circular economy and reduce – if not eliminate – plastic waste within 3D printing. Until such a solution is achieved, we will still continue to be the sustainable choice in 3D printing by committing to:

  • Using recycled material (post-consumer and post-industrial) where possible 
  • Avoid the use of new, virgin polymers to reduce energy and demand for raw materials. 
  • Utlise plant-based bioplastics when there is no recycled alternative
  • Forming strategic partnerships with recycling companies to use their waste streams to produce filament
  • Using 100% recyclable cardboard spools to further reduce waste and increase the recyclability of our products/packaging

Hopefully this has been an interesting and informative read – if you have any questions about recycled filament or indeed anything related to Filamentive, please email us.

2 Responses to Recycling Failed and Waste 3D Prints into Filament: Challenges

  1. David says:

    There is a Belgian company called loopla who claim to be able to make PLA pellets from used PLA. Apparently they recycle at a chemical level and essentially repolymerize it and create fresh PLA whilst stripping out contaminants. Not sure how effective it is but I thought it was interet

    • Ravi Toor says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, David. We are aware of the work of like-minded businesses such as Loopla and will always seek to develop partnerships if/when feasible.

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