Researchers 3D Print Recycled Plastic Into Affordable Tools For African Farmers

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The plastic that we throw into the recycling bin every week could find a new lease of life as agricultural tools to help those in low-to-middle income countries. This is part of a new circular plastics project devised by researchers at Loughborough University.

This innovative project could help to tackle multiple social and environmental issues at once. 3D printing using reclaimed plastic waste materials opens up a world of possibilities for countries to boost their local economies while also reducing the build-up of plastic waste.

This method can be used to produce a wide range of tools, including fruit pickers and a fish farming system. These are tools that would cost a lot of money but can now be created using something that would otherwise be wasted.

How does 3D printing with recycled plastics work?

The process starts with waste plastic. This can be sourced from recycling facilities or collected from homes and businesses. The plastic is washed to remove all traces of labels and whatever might have been contained inside.

Next, the plastic is shredded into small plastic pellets. The waste is also typically sorted into colours to ensure a uniform extruded product. Next up, the plastic pellets are dried out before being passed through an extruder. An extruder heats the plastic to create a uniform mass and then forces it through a small hole to create a long filament of plastic. This is then wound onto a spool ready for 3D printing.

The 3D printer is then loaded with a spool of recycled, extruded plastic. It is fed into the nozzle where it is heated once again and then printed into layers. The layers build up and cool as it goes, creating a solid 3D structure.

This circular system could provide a way to put plastic waste to good use while also providing much-needed tools to those who need them most. The versatility of this project also means that tools can be printed as required, without the need to ship items in bulk and store them.

The Circular Plastics Project

The Loughborough research team received £150,000 in funding to help bring their ideas to life. So far, in their 18-month initiative, the team have partnered with UK NGOs and partners in Nigeria, Kenya and Rwanda to start the process of collecting plastic bottles. 

Once this is turned into 3D printing filament, they have started producing prototype designs that meet the specific needs of the communities they are serving. They worked with local communities to determine which tools would improve their lives and allow them to generate a source of food and income through fishing and farming.

They have created a modular fish farm and a fruit grabber that can be built using netting and bamboo. They are also developing a sand-dredging adaptor, non-electric milk cooler and a recycled boat baler. And finally, they have developed a prototype for a machete peeler.

Part of a wider project

The Circular Plastics Project is part of two much larger projects; the Perpetual Plastic for Food to Go Projects (PPFFTG) and the Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging Challenge (SSPPC).

These are backed by government funding and were set up to help identify ways to reduce plastic packaging waste through recycling, reducing and creating more sustainable packaging options.

Loughborough University received £1.15million in funding, so this is clearly something that government wants to support. The projects are specifically aimed at reducing single-use plastics from the food to go industry. Sandwiches, salads and snacks are often sold in plastic packaging that is often thrown into general waste rather than making it into the recycling.

These projects aim to address how we can package food to go in more sustainable packaging and how we can reuse this packaging to help limit the impact. Through a circular business model, the researchers believe that they can make recycling profitable and good for the environment. 

Award-winning projects using 3D printing

The Circular Plastics Project has already been nominated for numerous awards, including the social impact category of the International Design Excellence Awards. The project highlights the importance of making 3D printing available to everyone, not just those who can easily access their own machines.

As 3D printers become cheaper, this is paving the way for individuals to find innovative ways to make them work for everyone. Anyone can develop a 3D printed design and order it from a company like Proto Labs. If the idea is a success, they can then share their design to help those who need it most. 

Charities like LikeEnabled are using 3D printing to make prosthetics cheaper and more widely available to amputees around the world. 

In Cambridge, a team created Blue Tap, which is 3D-printed chlorine that can make water safe to drink in some of the most deprived communities in the world.

And finally, 14Trees is a UK-based organisation that is using 3D printing homes and schools in Africa to help the continent address its infrastructure shortage.