Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, is a constantly evolving technology expected to be significantly part of our everyday life in a near future. Despite being still less than 1% of the global manufacturing market, AM is yet a boon for many industrial sectors such as medical, transportation or energy, and is used at all stages of production, from proof of concept and prototyping to full-scale manufacturing.

A virgin plastic-dominated market

Even though metal, ceramic and composite materials can be employed, plastic is the most common material used in 3D printing industry (of up to 82%) and is still primarily coming from virgin sources (petroleum-based resins). The latter fact is mainly due to feedstock requirements related to getting clean and high-quality supply waste to produce recycled filaments. Quality of manufactured filaments (diameter, roundness, but also absence of any debris and/or contaminants) plays a key role to avoid print failures, extruder blockages, or even potential health and environmental harms during plastic heating. To fulfil those quality requirements, high grade materials from single source plastic feedstocks have to be used to manufacture recycled filament.

The global production of plastic-based goods has increased significantly in recent years. Global plastic production in 2019 amounted to 359 million tons, of which 17% is in European countries (according to Plastics Europe Market Research Group). One major waste stream of plastics concerns single use plastics (SUPs), included in the municipal wastes. SUPs cause enormous pollution in our environment; 8 million tons per year of SUPs leak into our oceans ending up as microplastics affecting our ecosystems. European Union (EU) by itself generates 27 million tons per year of waste plastic, 31% is recycled, 41% incinerated (for energy recovery) and 28% landfilled. The value of the already processed plastic is therefore mostly lost where finding alternative recycling options could be considered. In other words, uptake for recycled content in new plastic products is low and EU plastic industry relies upon imported virgin plastic. Supply from recycled SUPs could meet this demand.

A market for recyclates: The needs for high-grade and secure feedstocks

It turns out that the Transform-CE project is focusing on using household waste plastic and scaling it up to be used as feedstock for intrusion-extrusion moulding (IEM) and additive manufacturing (AM) sectors whilst adopting circular economy principals. This goal will concretely be achieved thanks to the implementation of 2 full operational recycling plants using IEM and AM technologies to embed recycled municipal plastic into the design and manufacturing of new/existing products, followed in the next years by at least 10 new IEM/AM plant investments. 

In the case of AM, small and medium enterprises are already producing filaments/feedstocks from single sourced commercial waste plastic (such as post-industrial waste), but at very small scales and with limited use to business. Transform-CE innovates beyond this situation by using SUPs from the municipal waste stream as an alternative to virgin plastic and by stimulating growth of the AM industry whilst not disrupting the existing secondary material market, which has a lower value (per tonne) than recycled AM filament. This demonstrates that a more commercially valuable resource can be attained.

3D printing tests with recyclates aim to ensure that mixed waste plastic feedstocks meet the specification of the company’s intended product to guarantee feedstocks uptake into new/existing products. Business specification are essential to explore possibilities for re-looping the plastic products (deconstruction, remanufacture multiple times). In this context, first tests have started with recycled PET and PETG in Transform-CE to define accurately the plastic feedstocks’ specifications needed to manufacture value-added 3D printed products. Reaching those specifications would provide the possibility to benefit from AM while combining it with the inclusion of plastic wastes into the value chain.

What does that mean for your company? Is additive manufacturing already an integral part of your process? Could you grow your business by using (more) AM? Goals of the Transform-CE project include providing businesses with an alternative to virgin plastic feedstock, creating demand for reuse, and developing partnerships between waste and AM companies to ensure the availability of supplies for waste plastics. It may be time to consider whether your company needs a strategy for how to incorporate recycled material into your production processes and to develop new circular economy business models.

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