By 2020, there will be more than 250 million pounds of plastic produced by 3D printers. Add that to the 8 million tons that end up in the ocean every year and the more than 275 million total tons produced by 192 countries in the world, and we can see there is about to be a massive problem.
The thing is, 3D printing is actually a sustainable solution, especially when it comes to packaging, manufacturing, and shipping. It has the ability to cut down the cost and material waste in those processes. But, when the printers are using fresh plastic, the waste of which is thrown directly in the trash, this progressive technology begins counteracting the good it could have done.
"People get excited about the new technology, but with that new technology is a carbon footprint," said Mark Sherman, co-founder of Dimension Polymers.
Sherman and his co-founder Gerald Galazin have created the "world's first professionally recycled 3D printer filament," which is being debuted this week at the 3D Printshow in New York City. They'll be taking initial orders at the show, and opening the online store at the end of April.
In early 2015, Dimension Polymers ran a Kickstarter campaign for the filament and just exceeded their goal of $20,000. But rather wisely, they didn't crowdfund solely for the money — they looked at it as a marketing move, to generate buzz about the filament and show that there was a demand for such a product. And it worked.
Mostly, Sherman and Galazin wanted to "bring eyes onto what we were doing and hopefully generate some interest because, especially for startups, getting that initial push and that level of interest and certain number of folks on board helps to validate what you're doing," Galazin said.
Dimension Polymers sources its materials from various collection and recycling centers and scrapyards. The plastic is then ground, washed, sorted, and run through a proprietary system that removes contamination, paint, and anything else that isn't good for plastic. Galazin said they can't describe the exact process because that's what sets them apart from others in the market, but basically, it finds all the junk in plastic and removes it, so they are left with clean ABS, made from 95% recycled plastic.
One of the biggest concerns with recycled materials is heat history — every time plastic is melted and remolded, it degrades a little more. With 3D printing, that was obviously a huge hurdle, because if it's melted again when being printed, it produces bubbles and stringy materials that don't look very good. The team had to make sure that when plastic comes out of the extruder, it's basically identical to virgin plastic.
"We need to produce [a product] that has to be as good or better than what currently out on the market as far as quality of 3D print it would yield. That was an uncertainty for many months," Galazin said.
The team went through several iterations, formulating the plastic and testing it on a variety of 3D printers. They worked with industry professionals, experts in the plastics recycling industry, and chemical engineers to get the results they needed.
"[We were] able to eventually get the formula where it is," Galazin said. "Our print quality is equal to, or better than, highest on market."
There are other startups around the world building machines that turn plastic waste into filament for 3D printers, and others that are making the filament itself, but none are certified by a third party to show that the plastic is safe, clean, and comparable to standard ABS/PLA plastic filament.
Dimension Polymers has also tackled 3D filament packaging. Most material comes on a giant plastic spool, that is often just tossed in the trash can because it can't be recycled in a typical home or office, creating additional waste.
"If we're going down the road of creating a sustainable product, the packaging should align with that," Sherman said.
So the team at Dimension Polymers redesigned the spool. It's made from 100% recycled paper, can be recycled in any home or office recycling bin, and weighs less than half of the plastic ones currently used by the industry.
With the 3D printing market expected to reach more than $16 billion by 2018, Galazin and Sherman are trying to make their mark early and set a precedent for the industry to follow.
"[We] want [people] to say, 'there's no reason why I wouldn't pick the sustainable one. It looks the same, it's less expensive, and it's recycled,'" Galazin said.
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.