Milk jugs could power the 3D printer revolution

Researchers from Michigan Technological University have shown that making your own 3D printer filament from milk jugs uses less energy than recycling milk jugs conventionally. And it can lead to huge cost savings.

3D printers could be the next biggest consumer revolution. As the prices of these once costly machines go down, more and more people are looking to use them to manufacture their own products. Not only is it cheaper to make your own products rather than purchasing them, 3D printing at home has a lower environmental footprint because it uses less materials and reduces distribution and transport emissions.

Researchers at Michigan Technological University (MTU) have found another way to save money and even further reduce the environmental impact of 3D printing: Turning used milk jugs into 3D printer filament. Filament is the plastic material out of which 3D printers create products.

The MTU researchers did a life-cycle analysis on a run-of-the-mill milk jug made from HDPE plastic. After cleaning it and cutting it in pieces, they ran it through an office shredder and a RecycleBot, which turns waste plastic into 3D printer filament.

Compared to an ideal urban recycling program, which collects and processes plastic locally, turning milk jugs into filament at home uses about 3 per cent less energy. In rural areas, where people have to transport plastic to be collected, then transport it again to be recycled and a third time to be made into products, the energy savings skyrocket to 70 to 80 per cent. Even more: recycling your own milk jugs uses 90 per cent less energy than making new plastic from petroleum.

The cost savings are equally impressive. Filament retails for between 36 and 50 dollars a kilogram compared to homemade filament at 10 cents a kilogram using recycled plastic. Those savings easily offset the cost of buying a RecycleBot.

This new recycling technology has caught the eye of the Ethical Filament Foundation, which aims to improve the lives of waste pickers, who scour other people’s trash for items to sell or recycle. “In the developing world, it’s hard to get filament, and if these recyclers could make it and sell it for, say, $15 a kilogram, they’d make enough money to pull themselves out of poverty while doing the world a lot of good,” said lead researcher Joshua Pearce.

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