A greener source for technology

By | Science & Technology
3D printer printing model. Credit@Andrea Schwalm via flickr.com

Millions of individuals across the world work at refuse sites in developing countries. Carefully collecting recyclable materials, such as plastics and selling them on to dealers, earning their living. A new scheme, set up by social enterprise Protoprint, aims to empower plastic pickers in India, providing them with training, more money and a better quality of life. In return they may produce plastic filaments which may be used for the growing industry of 3D printing.

Based in the city of Pune, this scheme aims to teach pickers how to find high density polyethylene (HDPE). This may come in the shape of used shampoo, detergent and medicine bottles, to name a few. Once this has been collected they aim to transport the plastic to a nearby laboratory where it is to be cleaned and pressed into strands of plastic filaments. The machine grinds the material into flakes before it is heated and fashioned into the required strands.

On top of this training Protoprint aims to improve the earnings of the workers. Whereas they are thought to make around $1 a day, the scheme believes this may increase by 15 – 20 times. This substantial pay rise might significantly improve workers’ livelihoods. Along with the scheme London organisation TechforTrade has set up an ethics body in order to protect the plastic collectors. This ensures  they may receive the correct pay promised to them and all health standards are met.

There seem to be a number of customers lined up ready to utilise the recycled plastic product, from engineering universities to car parts companies. As the scheme develops, there may be a vast potential to attract more buyers to this green source of plastic. The recycled filament costs $13.50 a kilogram compared to roughly $30.00 for commercial filament. Once good quality of the filament product is confirmed, this may make the recycled plastic filaments attractive to buyers.

These filaments may then be used for 3D printing. This is a process by which layers of material are progressively added together to create a 3D structure from instructions given to a computer. There are a vast number of imaginative applications for 3D printing. This includes printing out reconstructed fossils for palaeontologists to better visualise and understand their specimens. Architects may print out buildings and structures to better visualise their creations and engineers may print vital working components.

The future of 3D printing holds many possibilities. Scientists have replaced plastic with human cells, and are able to grow human tissues and organs on a gel medium using a 3D printer. This might have important implications for transplants. More recently the US army has been investigating the printing of food on demand for its soldiers using similar technology.  All areas might potentially benefit from 3D printing, especially as it becomes more widely available through, for example, more affordable, recycled materials.

The plastic pickers of Pune are the first of a number of planned projects to support developing countries to improve working conditions at refuse sites. Oaxaca in Mexico and Bogota in Columbia are two proposed areas in a similar situation to Pune. This sort of project aims to open doors to other important sources of recyclable materials, whilst improving the welfare of workers in developing countries. Protoprint’s scheme is an innovative example of developing productive, ethical and environmentally friendly opportunities. The plastic pickers, the 3D printing engineers and environmental groups all benefit from this project aiming to step towards a cleaner and greener planet.

What other sources of recyclable materials may be utilised?

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