Just how big of an issue is the 3D Printing Waste Problem?


The management of plastic waste is a growing problem as 3D printing adoption continues to increase. As per research, 33% of all 3D prints become waste and approx. 379,000 kg of plastic waste is generated by filament-based 3D printing in the UK alone.

There is no established end of life (EoL) processing system for 3D printing waste and research suggests that 70% of 3D printing operators do not recycle their waste, implying that 3D printing waste is most likely being landfilled, causing detrimental environmental impact.


The Contamination Conundrum of 3D Printing Waste


Contamination risk of 3D printing waste which prevents recycling

One of the primary hurdles in recycling plastic waste is the risk of contamination. Many 3D printed parts, regardless of their polymer composition, look strikingly similar. For instance, PLA and PETG pieces can be easily mistaken for one another, posing a challenge for both the end-user seeking to segregate their waste and also the receiver who needs to separate it.

According to All3DP, mixing different types of plastics can significantly impair the strength and durability of recycled materials. While Near Infrared (NIR) optical sortation technology shows promise in identifying and sorting diverse polymers, its application is still in the early stages, with research indicating that the quality and efficiency of NIR optical sorting can differ significantly.


Quality Control and Closed-Loop Recycling


Closed-loop recycling process for 3D printing waste

There’s a common misunderstanding that we can easily accept customer waste, shred it, and then reprocess it into 100% recycled filament. Although technically feasible, recycling PLA and other plastics introduces significant quality control challenges.

Research indicates that recycled PLA experiences significant degradation in mechanical properties after just three recycling cycles. Although adding virgin polymer could mitigate these effects, it would dilute the environmental benefits of recycling by increasing the need for new, non-recycled material per recycling cycle.


There’s Two Sides to every Recycling Equation


PLA 3D printing waste being transported to an industrial composting facility

So if we can’t simply remake filament from returned waste, what are the options for recycling?

As aptly summarised in this Guardian article, “recycling only works when there’s someone on the other side of the equation…”

PLA filament is the most commonly used material in 3D printing. Its biodegradability, however, is limited to industrial composting conditions, and it poses a significant contamination risk to conventional recycling streams. The rarity of industrial composting facilities for processing PLA only compounds this issue, resulting in lack of access to proper disposal facilities, let alone cost effective rates to responsibly dispose of PLA waste from 3D printing.

For more mainstream, non-PLA polymers such as ABS and PETg, there are of course established recycling businesses willing to accept and even pay for bulk plastic waste. However, in our exploration of ABS recycling, it’s clear that recyclers necessitate several tonnes of plastic scrap due to the necessary economic and environmental efficiency required. This effectively bars companies like ours from third-party recycling services due to our inability to meet the necessary minimum waste volumes.


Reverse Logistics and Economic Viability


AI reverse logistics for 3D printing waste

The logistical challenges of recycling 3D printing waste are considerable. The low weight-to-volume ratio of plastic makes its collection and transport costly and inefficient. Moreover, without in-house capabilities, coordinating waste return to our production partners through Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) introduces additional operational hurdles.

In addition to logistical costs, sorting, reprocessing, manufacturing, and administration add significant financial burdens. The willingness of different customer segments to bear these costs varies, with businesses more likely than individual hobbyists to pay for waste management.

Even if market-viable recycled filament products were feasible, the economics of external processing and the need to pass costs onto consumers in the form of pricing or an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) business model remains complex.


What options are available for Recycling 3D Printing Waste?


What options are available for Recycling 3D Printing Waste

In response to the frequently asked question, we wrote a blog post on how to recycle PLA 3D printing waste. In terms of ‘do it yourself’ (DIY) methods, both low-cost upcycling and recycling waste back into filament are possible options for 3D printing operators to explore.

Upcycling, the process of transforming waste materials into useful or valuable items, offers innovative solutions for 3D printing waste, particularly PLA. Numerous online guides detail how to repurpose PLA waste into new products; for instance, this Instructables guide demonstrates the process of melting PLA to create new items through methods like laser cutting.

Ecobricks present another upcycling method, turning used plastics into building blocks for temporary structures or furniture, showing potential in addressing 3D printing waste challenges.

Furthermore, for those with the technical expertise, time and capital resources to invest into the necessary equipment, recycling 3D prints back into filament, although challenging, has been successfully adopted by some large-scale 3D printing operations. One example is Make, a London architectural studio who achieved a closed-loop production system by using specific recycling and filament-making equipment, showcasing a sustainable approach to managing 3D printing waste via a closed-loop, in-situ recycling system for their own waste.


Is there a UK Service for 3D Printing Waste Recycling?


3D Printing Waste Box

Whilst Filamentive is unable to take back 3D printer waste for recycling at the time of writing this, thankfully, specialist recycling services for 3D printing waste do indeed exist in the UK.

Generally speaking, PLA 3D printing waste recycling services offer different landfill avoidance solutions, including closed-loop recycling, upcycling, and downcycling.

3D Printing Waste (3DPW) provides an effective solution for managing end-of-life 3D-printed parts, aiming to reduce plastic pollution in both land and marine ecosystems. To participate in PLA recycling, customers can place an order for a recycling box and, once received, 3D printing operators can fill it with PLA waste before then arranging pickup from their location.

Opting for a 3D printing waste recycling service is effectively ‘pay as you go’ recycling, eliminating the need for any upfront investment. However, it’s crucial to understand that certain services focus solely on recycling PLA. The cost of recycling, based on the amount and density of the waste, typically averages between £4-5 per kilogram, so admittedly, the pricing might deter operators, who might find it financially challenging or be reluctant to incur such expenses.


Towards Sustainable 3D Printing and Circular Economy


Photo of a modern 3D printer in a spacious workshop

Facing the challenge of recycling 3D printing waste, Filamentive remains dedicated to sustainable 3D printing and advancing the circular economy. Despite hurdles like contamination and the technical complexities of closed-loop recycling, we persist in our mission to reduce environmental impact. Our commitment to innovation and sustainability fuels our efforts to find viable recycling solutions, reinforcing our vision for a greener future in 3D printing.

FREE Recycling of PLA 3D Printing Waste

As of April 2024, Filamentive now offer existing customers FREE PLA 3D printing waste recycling. All existing customers in the UK who have spent a minimum of £500 + VAT on PLA 3D Printer Filament products through our website are eligible for our free recycling box scheme. Our partners 3D Printing Waste (3DPW) will receive your filled recycling box once returned and take care of the entire recycling process, cost-free!

Recycle for FREE