The Dutch pioneer 3D printer filament from recycled plastic
With the Netherlands taking circular economy initiatives seriously, it’s no surprise that young Dutch entrepreneurs are also getting stuck in, finding ways to combat waste in up and coming markets.
A growing market
3D printing is one of the growing markets that is expected to soar with one billion dollars being invested in its industrial use in 2017, according to research firm Wohlers.
To some, the concept of a 3D printer is still quite mind blowing: being able to make a physical object from a digital model, quite literally by laying down layers of material.
Essentially, 3D printing opens up multiple opportunities for sustainability if the "ink" or filament is produced from recycled materials. It would allow people to make and create their own objects instead of having to rely on the plastic powerhouses of the world.
Recycled filament for 3D printing
In 2010, Dutch company Ultimaker launched their 3D printers which are now sold in more than 50 countries worldwide, and whilst the 3D printing market is growing steadily in the Netherlands, the cost of newly produced filament can be quite expensive.
That’s why Better Future Factory, a Rotterdam based social and sustainable design consultancy came up with Refil; a company that makes high-quality filament for 3D printers, except the filament they make isn’t just normally produced filament, it derives from waste.
The brand grew out of another project called Perpetual Plastic that started more than five years ago, inventing machinery to wash, dry and turn plastic into a wire-like substance that could then be moulded into other physical objects.
The company was then asked to do a collaborative project with TU Delft at the Lowlands festival. They ran a workshop where they welcomed festival goers with their emptied beer cups, washed them and turned them into far cooler things that they could take home to remind them of the fun they had.
Experts of plastic discouraged the idea stating that it was impossible to turn plastic into other useful objects on an industrial scale considering all the debris that needed to be filtered out, but being stubborn, CEO Casper van der Meer kept going with the idea and two years ago, Refil was born.
How Refil works
As the "re" in Refil implies, rather than produce their filament from scratch, they create filament from scrap by recycling plastic.
As CEO Casper van der Meer explains, less than 10 percent of the plastic produced gets recycled. This is because of two reasons; firstly, the production process of manufacturers are not adapted to be able to recycle plastics and secondly, the collection of plastic is often too costly.
Furthermore, it's the city councils that get to decide what to do with the plastic that is collected rather than allowing citizens to re-use it.
Refil works with partner companies that source plastic from different councils in the Netherlands to ensure that they produce high-quality filament. Examples of the plastics they use include PET bottles, car dashboards and the inside of refrigerator doors.
From Refil to Reflow: A social perspective
In 2014, Jasper Middendorp, who trained with Refil started up his own company coming from a more social angle called Reflow. Reflow also make filament, however their factories are not in the Netherlands, instead they have a factory in New Delhi, India and one in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
CEO Jasper Middendorp explains that they buy bottles from waste collectors whose work is often looked down upon as they work in rubbish dumps collecting scraps to sell. Reflow then buys the plastic, cleans it and cuts it into pieces. The pieces are then turned into filament and sold to 3D printer users.
According to Middendorp, one kilo of plastic is worth about a dollar depending on oil prices, but Reflow is able to sell a 750g role of filament for 30 dollars, making a big enough profit to be able to provide the waste collectors with shoes, protective gloves for picking up waste, higher salaries in addition to an extra meal a day.
Reflow is also expecting to launch in Amsterdam in March, 2017. They plan to use the profits gained from their filament for an even more ambitious social cause; they plan to provide health insurance for the waste collectors they work with abroad. Their aim is to invest in the local economies for example, in creating cheap microbes or childbirth kits, all from their 3D printers.
Want to try your hand at 3D printing? Perpetual Plastic do workshops.
Whilst 3D printers currently use plastic, it is predicted that materials used in the future could include glass, porcelain, and wood pulp as well as textiles.