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Digital Blacksmiths: Tackling Pollution & Poverty through 3D Printing

If, like many of the environmentally conscious among us, you tuned into BBC’s Drowning In Plastic and were left reeling at the site of baby birds vomiting up pieces of hard plastic, you probably won’t be surprised at the topic we’re covering in this blog… And although most people are in agreement that the plastic tap needs to be switched off at its source, there is still the question of what exactly we can do about the plastic that’s already out there. With the UK seemingly experiencing a plastic recycling crisis, we need to find solutions - and fast. Thankfully, we think we might have found (at least part of) the answer...

From houses to aircraft to shoes, the applications of 3D printing (3DP) are rapidly expanding into every corner of manufacturing. TechforTrade, a UK-based charity operating throughout Africa, is using 3DP technology to not only help tackle plastic waste, but also as a tool helping catalyse sustainable development, empowering local communities. The social enterprise, founded in 2010, develops open-source, low-cost 3DP technology for use in developing countries, using a closed-loop 3DP system, whereby waste plastic is collected from the community and then recycled into the filament that feeds directly into the printer.

It’s exciting to learn that companies like TechforTrade are unleashing the power of 3DP technology to provide at least part of the solution to plastic pollution and contributing to development at the same time, something that we at Atlas & Ortus also aim to do. We couldn’t wait to catch up with TechforTrade’s CEO, William Hoyle, to help us understand how exactly the company is doing this. Here’s what he had to say...

“For millions of the world’s poorest people, obtaining basic staple items is often impossible… On top of having fewer product development and manufacturing facilities, poor infrastructure drives up the cost of imported goods, putting them out of reach.”

3DP

William realised that people in need could use the power of 3DP to help them gain access to these basic items, as a product can be conceived, designed and sent down the wires to a 3D printer literally anywhere in the world. On top of this, he also saw an opportunity to tackle plastic pollution by using waste plastic instead of imported virgin plastic, and turning this into printing filament, a solution that is not only cheaper but much more sustainable. Sounds like a perfect solution, right?

Yet, far from being straightforward, the implementation of 3DP in countries such as Kenya naturally threw up its challenges. Firstly, there’s the issue of equipment.

“The printers weren’t designed for use in environments with high humidity, temperatures and dust - so within a few weeks of them being delivered, many of them broke... Plus, with fluctuating power supplies, the machines were simply blowing.”

As well as the operating environment, education of the printer’s operators is also an important aspect to consider.

“There must be local access to education in computer-aided design. If you don’t have those skills built into school and university, then 3D printing technology won’t take off… Also, inventors, entrepreneurs and educationalists need a go-to place for figuring out how 3D printing can be leveraged.”

To help address some of these problems, TechforTrade came up with the innovative idea of ‘Digital Blacksmiths’, hubs where engineers and entrepreneurs using digital tools can go to manufacture products - with some help from those who know exactly what they’re doing.

These blacksmiths print products that are in demand by the community, from classroom microscopes and iPhone cables to a model of a conjoined pelvis before surgical separation. But, the genius thing about the blacksmiths is that they can actually use the printers to print more printers. This means that others can easily (and relatively cheaply) start their own business printing new items, as well as offer training for others on how to use them. This is sustainable development at its finest.

Of course, intrigued by their closed-loop system, we asked how the waste plastic gets from the streets to the printer filament.

“PET bottles are processed to make printing filament - but it’s difficult,” said William. “We have created a process for manufacturing filament from locally sourced waste PET, using our low-cost, open-source technology.”

As well as recycling plastic into useful, valuable products, the closed-loop system provides income to the local waste picking community.

3DP

“We’re looking forward to building strong links with local waste picker communities,” William explained. “In supporting them to expand and formalise operations, our initiative helps towards greater plastic recovery, consistent income and better working conditions.”

TechforTrade has developed an ‘Ethical Filament’ brand, which adheres to certain trading standards and should ensure that a new revenue stream for waste pickers is established. The social enterprise aims to improve the lives of a million people in the next five years and, although it’s early days, the impact is already evident:

“If we make 100 microscopes, the waste collector would get five to ten times more than what they normally would, and the resultant filament would be a quarter of the price of imported filament. Plus, to top it off, 1,500 waste bottles would be used in the process,” William said.

Looking to the future, William wants to encourage other companies to use ‘waste to value’ printing. “We shouldn’t only be reducing the amount of plastic in the waste stream, but also finding more ways to recycle and reuse. The designs of our 3D printer and filament are all open source - we’re not looking to hold on to intellectual property.”

Our conversation with William left us feeling hopeful, if slightly conflicted. Recycling - even in such innovative ways - won’t solve the plastics problem on its own; as we’ve seen in the news over this last week, it simply isn’t enough, and we need to be doing more to tackle the problem at the source. But at the same time, there is a beauty in how TechforTrade is empowering and improving the lives of entire communities off the back of waste plastic, which may have otherwise ended up in the ocean. Perhaps we should be looking at the plastics crisis as an opportunity for innovation, collaboration and empowerment, rather than just an overwhelming mess? As TechforTrade perfectly demonstrates, we are not powerless to it.

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Lydia Paris is a London based writer and strategy consultant. Get in touch through lydiaparis@outlook.com


© Lydia Paris and Atlas & Ortus, 2018.


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