Prototyping’s plastic problem

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The problem of plastic waste is all over the headlines and all over the planet. But while the urgent need for more conscientious recycling and clear end-of-life plans for plastic couldn’t be clearer, 3D printing prototypes seemingly get overlooked, writes Mark Young

3D printers are great, aren’t they? So futuristic. But what on earth are we making with them? What we’re making, mostly, is plastic. And what happens to that plastic once it’s printed? From my experience, I think most designers and 3D printer manufacturers just don’t care. For 15 months, I was part of a fantastic initiative called GRIP (the Gloucestershire Research & Innovation Programme), based at the University of Gloucestershire’s new business school.

As part of a wide range of support services for local small and medium-sized companies – which also includes advice on IP protection, funding, business planning and more – there was a great perk on offer for clients making physical products: free 3D printing.

GRIP installed a Stratasys F170 FDM printer and its team budgeted to stock every material in every colour, giving clients full-colour-spectrum access to PLA, ABS and ASA, as well as to the mysterious, dissolvable support material, Quick Support Release (QSR).

I first came into contact with GRIP as a client through my own business, Mark Young Design. Later, I joined the team part-time, in order to run the lab and help clients with design and manufacturing. I had two initial thoughts when I first signed up. The first was, “Wow! Free printing, in every colour? This is amazing”. The second: “What on earth is ASA?”

ASA was new to me. It’s promoted by Stratasys as the best material to use – it’s like ABS, but is more UV stable and offers better mechanical properties. However, Stratasys offered no advice on how, or where, this material could be recycled. The company does take back and remanufacture some printer consumables (we used this service for filament spools, for example), but not the materials themselves.

Sustainability focus

The University of Gloucestershire has a huge focus on sustainability, coming top in a recent national survey, and it’s a focus that I share. So when I took over the lab, I was determined to run it as responsibly as I could.


One of my first tasks was to write a guide explaining all the technical details of the Stratasys F170 FDM printer, its materials and providing a best-practice section to aid identification and recycling by adding a text tag onto each part – more of which later.

My first thought was to prioritise use of PLA. But despite being theoretically compostable and made from renewable resources, it offered no official compostable certification, so I couldn’t recommend it to clients as a circular solution, and often, the parts produced were of lower quality compared to ABS and ASA.

The trays on which parts are built are themselves made of ABS. On my training course, I was advised to use fresh trays every time because, as many of us know, keeping the bed as flat as possible on a 3D printer is critical for reliable builds. It also means new ones must be constantly manufactured and purchased.

The students who previously ran the lab had tried to reuse the trays by dissolving away any QSR support structure. A great idea, but one that often warped the trays, making them hard to reuse.

So, after each and every build, what you’re left with is a single-use ABS tray. I went through more than 50 of these during my time at the lab, often with 3D-printed parts fused to them, along with other waste, typically a hybrid of ASA/ABS and QSR that results from purging printer nozzles when changing over materials.

In cradle-to-cradle terms, we might call this a ‘monstrous hybrid’ – different synthetic materials, stuck together in a way that’s almost impossible to separate.

The University had recently decided to send zero waste to landfill, meaning that everything that couldn’t be recycled would be incinerated, including these by-products of 3D printing prototypes.

Inadequate labelling

As time went on, I noticed that nobody was adding the prescribed recycle codes to their parts. Over 15 months, I estimate that resulted in nearly 100-plus parts, totalling some 40kg of plastic, all out there with no code on them to help a human understand what they were. Even if ASA isn’t commonly recycled, it’s important to stop it contaminating the plastics that are.

The problem was the difficulty of adding codes to models. Legibility depends on layer thickness, print orientation and font type and size, especially on small parts. Also, a client might decide at the last minute to change materials, after their CAD file had been created. So why was it up to me to do this, I kept wondering? Shouldn’t 3D printer manufacturers make this easy to do in their own software?

During my time at GRIP, I also attended the launch of a couple of new 3D printers. I brought up the idea of putting recycling codes on parts, and mentioned how hard this was to do in the software. This brought some blank looks and some interesting comments. A couple of remarks I remember were, “It’s a prototype, why would you throw it away?”, and, “We work with a F1 team that prints 20 tons of composite parts a month.”

If we aren’t thinking sustainably at the design stage of a product, is it any wonder we find it hard to do so when production is scaled up?

Bursting the bubble

It seems to me that the prototyping process exists in a bubble – and if we aren’t thinking responsibly and sustainably at the design phase, is it any wonder we find it hard to do so when production is scaled up?

Every month, I get excited marketing emails about new 3D printing materials: ABS with Glass Fibre, Carbon Fibre and Nylon, filament with Flame Retardants. The list goes on. But are there any waste collection streams for these? End of life is simply never mentioned.

Yes, you could argue that prototypes often contain very little material compared to mass production. But this is the stage where we want mistakes to emerge and get tackled, long before parts are reproduced in their millions. So, I’d argue that prototypes are made to be thrown away – not that there is really any such place as ‘away’ on this planet that we all share.

In summary, there’s a huge opportunity here for 3D printer manufacturers to play their part in creating a circular system. But seizing that opportunity will depend on two things: their willingness to help makers mark up parts when they’re printed, giving clear indication of the materials used and how it should be disposed of; and second, their own efforts to promote the return of waste material and handle its recycling.

A call for action

Creating a more circular system that sees more 3D printing material recycled and reused will be a team effort. Who needs to get involved?

Designers: Add a material code to every part, wherever possible

3D printer owners: Consider what materials you use and think about where they will end up. Ask your material supplier if they recycle what they make – and if not, what’s their plan to do so?

3D printer manufacturers: Your machines make parts that won’t simply disappear, so help users to be more responsible. Talk to waste and recycling professionals before you introduce new materials and have an end-of-life plan for every material that you sell

Stratasys responds

In reply to this article, Stratasys VP of sustainability Rosa Coblens said:

“Stratasys established its Sustainability function this year and solidified the commitment to leveraging its 3D printing leadership position to further an industry-wide shift towards more sustainable practices, products and innovation.

Our Stratasys ESG activity is supported at the highest levels of our company leadership, pioneered and championed by our CEO, Yoav Zeif.

Mark Young’s article highlights very important and relevant industry issues that need to be addressed. As founding members of the Additive Manufacturer Green Trade Association, we aim to lead this effort. We set 4 UN Sustainable Development Goals and are serious about making an impact. Mark’s passion is also ours and we hope to deepen the dialogue.”

Mark Young is a Product Designer with a passion for helping clients enhance their sustainability by bringing Circular Economy thinking into their business

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