3D printer’s new role: reuse, reduce, press print

The ability to print personal pizzas, paperweights of fetuses from an MRI scan, and working guns is creating a huge buzz around 3D printers.

Though the technology has been around since the ‘80s, the latest in 3D printing allows us to envision an object, send instructions to a machine and watch it form in front of our own eyes.

No need for a middleman. No need for an extra trip to the store.

Rewinding the process to the beginning, sustainability organizations, such as London-based techfortrade, see new potential to use 3D printing to reduce our carbon footprint. All we have to do is consider the way we collect and recycle the plastics used for one of the most common 3D printing techniques.

“There’s an opportunity to address an environmental issue,” said William Hoyle, CEO of techfortrade.

The fused deposition modeling process works similarly to using a hot-glue gun, layering melted plastic filaments until the final product is formed. Spools of threaded filament can be purchased from many online retailers, including eBay and Amazon.

But Hoyle’s vision is to create fair trade filaments, a similar concept to that of other common fair-trade products like coffee, sugar or chocolate.

Currently, millions of people worldwide are making a living through collecting and sorting plastics, metals and other various scrap materials for reuse and recycle. Waste pickers are not formally employed, nor formally represented to ensure appropriate compensation.

In parts of India, for example, waste pickers make very little money from their labor, earning roughly 15 to 20 cents per kilogram of plastic, Hoyle said.

“On the other side, you’ve got consumers paying $30 per filament,” he said. “This is an opportunity to transfer that value back down the chain.”

In November 2013, techfortrade implemented the Ethical Filament Foundation, an initiative aimed at monitoring filament quality and upholding standards of plastic collection in developing countries.

Working with the waste-picker union, Swach, in Pune, India, the foundation is attempting to standardize the market, ensuring fair pricing, providing clothing and avoiding child labor.

“I would like to think that if you turn the clock forward maybe 5, 10, 20 years from now that the idea that these new additive technologies like 3D printing are being used in this way … so we don’t have this situation, where this revolution has bypassed the developing countries and [we will] have leveled the playing field,” he said.

Now, there are few organizations in the U.S. implementing similar standards toward the booming 3D printing market.

According to Jeremy Faludi, a sustainable design strategist and researcher in Berkeley, Calif., the daily use of 3D printing is too small scale to make a difference. He said while there likely will always be a need to bring papers into meetings, there won’t always be a need to show off plastic models.

“But in any case, the main [issue] is not the material itself,” he said, “but the electricity use while you’re printing.”

Because the current technology and time constraints allow for only small-scale production, the amount of plastic use is not expected to increase much in the long run, Faludi said.

“It depends on the way you use the machine than what particular machine you have,” he said. “There’s a lot of possibility either way.”

The 3D Printer Experience in River North brings individual design and production here.

Created by The MetaSpace social enterprise, the 3D Printer Experience was intended to spread the idea that people can develop a design and produce it locally, encouraging self-sustainability.

The MetaSpace co-founder Julie Steele sees the 3D printing revolution as a game changer.

“[It is] the rise of localism and the decline of globalism,” she said. “By supporting 3D printing, it’s bringing manufacturing back to local communities and kind of disrupting the supply chain a little bit.”

Steele said the goal is to create multiple bottom lines, not just an industry focused only on profits, but also social and environmental impact. This mirrors the goal of techfortrade.

The hope is to cut down mass manufacturing by implementing local community printers with the ability to print items for specific community needs.

“We’re going to see more creative use of the same technology,” Steele said. “We’re coming in from the bottom up.”

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