If you’ve been 3D printing for a little while, I’m sure you’ve noticed that plastic is starting to collect around your house. It might even be starting to take over. The shelves are filling with plastic figurines, toys and other cool stuff. The waste bins are filling up with failed prints. If you’re like me, you’ve got a box of partially completed or previous version prints, that “can still be made into something useful” so that they’re not wasted. And there are spools and spools of it, unused, waiting to be turned into something _______. I wanted to finish that sentence, but I realized the number of ways that I could have finished it were too numerous to narrow to only one ending. For instance, I could have used; useful; beautiful; needed; great; new; fun; creative; for my kid, my girlfriend, my sister or brother; the world has never seen before (oh! I guess that’s what I meant by “new”). Well you get the idea, there are almost infinite ways to end that sentence. I guess that’s because the world of 3D printing is almost infinite.
Many things to 3D print means plenty of plastic around. Along with the wanted and intended, the accidental and the unmade, the plastic the 3D printer is causing to gather in your house is only a part of the plastic, there’s the plastic that’s been coming in “naturally” for decades and now you’re really starting to notice how much our society depends on plastic; kitchen and bathroom tools, living room and bedroom devices, toys, tools, packaging, a quarter of the car, three quarters of the garage! It’s crazy! It’s insane! Unless, you’re out in the wilderness, you can’t have your eyes open and not see plastic. And being out in the wild is not a guarantee you won’t see any plastic when you open your eyes. Because, even if you don’t see it in your line-of-sight, it’s there, all around you. Guaranteed, you brought some with you.
Well, this is starting to sound like an anti-plastic political message. Don’t worry, it’s not. I’m just trying to point out, if you haven’t already noticed, there’s A LOT of plastic in our lives and there was even before we brought a 3D printer into our house. So, wouldn’t it be nice if the plastic was more reusable? I mean more than recyclable. What if you could take that plastic milk bottle when you were finished drinking the milk, what if you could put that milk bottle into a machine that turned into a block of plastic another machine could turn into the next tool you need or even turn it into filament for your printer. But I’m getting a head of myself. Anyways, wouldn’t it be nice if you could reuse the plastic in the milk bottle for something else you need? After all, you paid for it also when you bought the milk and if you could reuse the plastic, you might save money by supplying the plastic for the next time you buy milk.
Did you know the International Space Station has a 3D printer? There’s a ratchet wrench you can download from NASA, that was designed for the crew of the ISS to print out on their 3D printer, to solve a problem they had at the time. It’s likely, one day the engineers on Earth will design a tool for the space crew to solve a special problem, the crew will print it out, use it and then toss it into a machine that will melt it down to become the next tool printed out to solve a problem. That tool again, when they’re finished with it, will be tossed back into the machine to wait again and again and again. In the future, NASA will save money by sending raw plastic into space to print out just what the astronauts need, when they need it, instead of sending every possible tool they might need. And why couldn’t we eventually use a system like that down here. After all, we want to save money too. And it’s not only money we would save…
Hydrocarbons are the basis for most plastic and the main source of hydrocarbons is petroleum/crude oil. The same oil that gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, asphalt and many other products comes from. That’s why, when “they” say our society is dependent on oil (petroleum), “they” are right! We don’t just depend on crude oil to drive our cars and trucks or depend on it to fly our jets and war machines and heat our houses, we depend on it for the plastic we make from its hydrocarbons. For obvious reasons, the scientists are working hard at developing other types of plastics that don’t come form hydrocarbons. Polylactic Acid (PLA) is one of these types of plastic. PLA is a thermoplastic derived from vegetable starch and these days is probably the most popular 3D printing material. Thank the maker! That the most popular plastic for 3D printing is not petroleum based. There’s hope for us yet!
Plastic is so popular because it is so easily shaped and very durable. It’s that durability that keeps it gathering around the world, the way it’s gathering around the house long after it’s needed. Besides the mountains and rivers of plastic garbage to found in every town and city in the world, plastic is sprinkled around our streets, parking lots and the sidewalks of our neighborhoods. Have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It’s area of the north Pacific Ocean where floating garbage, mostly plastic, is collecting amidst the ocean currents and winds into a garbage island. The smaller size estimates put it at roughly the size of Texas and the larger end of the size estimates, calculate it to be about the size of Russia. And whichever is right, it’s getting bigger all the time. That’s a LOT of plastic. Imagine if we could put this plastic into a filament making machine. Not only would we clean up the oceans and the rest of environment, we have all the plastic we’d need for now and the future.
There’s this Netherland dude, Dave Hakkens who’s a great example to everyone. He’s been going around the world, to the worst places on his vacations to see what is really going on in the world. He’s seen how 3rd world countries folk are making a living from the trash of the first world and he’s got this idea that if they can make a living recycling metal trash into useful objects, they could do even more if there was a way to the same with the mountains of plastic. Not only could they clean up their countries, they could make a good living doing it. He has a website called Precious Plastic where he explains what he’s doing and how anyone who is interested can join in and do it in their community. It covers everything from the recycling to the making of things and recycling machines and it’s all open-source. He’s committed to helping save the world from plastic. He and us have much in common. He wants a cleaner world as I’m sure most, if not all of us do and he wants to make stuff from plastic. He wants a cheap source of plastic and so do we. He wants to get his plastic from recycling and so do… we?
As I mentioned early on, people are starting to develop ways to create plastic filament for our 3D printers from plastic waste, from failed prints and previous versions, that are no longer needed, but we hang onto them anyway, because they cost us money and we put a lot of work into them. It would be nice if we could find a use for them. Well, that use could be, put them in the machine and turn them into filament for our next prints. There are machines that will do that: like the FilaMaker, FilaFab Mini and the Strooder that can be bought off the shelf or the Filabot filament maker that can be built at home from open-source plans. I’ve seen a number filament making machines that can be built at home and the instruction to build them are on one of my all-time favorite websites: Instructables.com. Here’s an example of one of the best filament makers on the site: The Filament Factory. (https://www.instructables.com/id/Build-your-own-3d-printing-filament-factory-Filame/)
In order to save plastic, we can save plastic when using our 3D printers. We can print less junk, print smaller test samples, print incomplete versions and/or partial files when working on prototype changes and we can work on plasticwise structural changes in our prints; such as thicker perimeter walls and less infill, when possible to give our prints the strength they need while using less plastic. These are just some of the ways we can use less plastic and still get the most from our 3D printers. And one last thing we can do to save plastic with our 3D printers, is by buying filament refills; filament that comes without the spool. You use an old, empty spool or print out one of the downloadable re-use spools from the Internet. Remember, by saving plastic, we can save money, save shelf and storage space and save waste. We also save time, which is our own personal most important resource and save the environment, which is the Earths most important resource.