3D printing/additive manufacturing is only one source of plastic pollution in our ecosystem. The engineers at GoEngineer offer some suggestions on dealing with unwanted plastic from 3D printing as well as from other sources.
Jacob Bakovsky| Application Engineer, GoEngineer
A visualized trash problem
I like to question everything, especially when it comes to the environment. What happens to stuff after I’m done with it? Where does it go? How long will my trash be around after I’m done using a product? How much trash do I personally contribute to landfill waste daily? If you’re an average American, we, as individuals, throw out an average of 4.4 pounds of trash every day (SaveOnEnergy). Figure 1 below shows how trash waste scales.
What happens to the 4.4 pounds of trash I create every day after it reaches the landfill? In a modern landfill, the waste is tightly packed in a clay-lined pit sealed with a skin of flexible plastic. A pipe collects the toxic runoff, called leachate (Ashford).
Landfills are designed to store waste but not necessarily to break it down. However, some garbage decomposes slowly in the sealed oxygen-free environment. Since the bacteria lack oxygen, they produce methane, which is flammable and dangerous to collect underground as well as a greenhouse emission that contributes more to global warming than carbon dioxide (Ashford).
What about the other waste in the landfill and its plastic liner? How long does that take to decompose? The answer: never.
And, what are the implications?
How long does it take for plastics to biodegrade
Petroleum-based plastic doesn’t biodegrade with the rest of the organic material mixed in with garbage. Bacteria breaks down the organic waste into other useful compounds; however, bacteria won’t decompose plastic (Harris).
For this reason, it may be safe to say plastic will never biodegrade.
In fact, all the plastic that has been produced since its invention is still around today, and almost everything we touch is made of it (TheWorldCounts). Humans have already produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic in total and production is set to increase exponentially.
Plastic photodegrades quickly at sea, study finds
Petroleum plastics will never biodegrade and can only break down into smaller polymers through photo degradation: The sun’s UV rays can break the bonds holding the polymer chains together. However, these small plastic pieces are bits of toxic chemicals such as BPA and PS oligomer, which can potentially disrupt hormones and the reproductive system (Sohn).
Other toxins in plastics are linked to cancers, birth defects, childhood development issues, and immune system disorders. For humans, toxicity from plastics comes directly from lead cadmium and mercury found in many ocean fish as well as from diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), a carcinogen found in plastics (Andrews).
It is impossible to determine all the adverse effects of plastic because there is no control group that is unexposed to it; plastic is a global problem that affects every individual on Earth.
Because plastic is made from oil, which naturally repels water and attracts harmful polymers, and it breaks down into micro-plastic, which attracts more harmful chemicals from pesticide runoff, plastic attracts harmful polymers such as runoff DDT pesticide lingering in the ocean. When micro-plastic breaks down further it becomes nano-plastic: trillions of dense balls of toxicity so tiny they can pass through cell walls.
By eating or just living in an environment full of plastic, we are slowly absorbing the plastic things we use into our bodies as the smaller animals on the food chain consume microscopic plastic. In addition to being toxic to humans and wildlife, plastic is extremely toxic to the environment. Are we creating an uninhabitable world for future generations?
Trash in the oceans
What happens to the plastic that doesn’t make it into the landfill? It ends up in the ocean: Already there is 8 million tons of it in the ocean. At this rate, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
Trash in the ocean coagulates in gyres, the largest being the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is larger than Texas and full of various sizes of plastic particles.
It’s nothing like you can imagine.
It’s not a giant floating island; in fact, most of the plastic is breaking down and creating a soup that displaces the available food sources. This plastic ends up in the ocean through the micro-plastics from synthetic clothing, which gets into the ocean through washing machines (Mark Anthony Browne). Twenty percent of trash comes from ships and offshore platforms; the rest comes from litter blown into the sea or picked up by beach tides, and from intentional garbage dumping (Andrews).
Toxic, tiny plastic particles are consumed by all forms of life in the ocean, from bottom feeders to fish to sea mammals, so plastic eventually ends up on our plate.
When we can visualize how much we all contribute to the problem, we can be more inclined to act. If we don’t realize the impact of one bottle cap we throw out, but we see a bottle cap inside a bird it helped kill, the problem becomes more tangible. Also, toward this end, I decided to use my skills in SOLIDWORKS and SOLIDWORKS Visualize to help make the reality more tangible.
My team asked for help developing a new symbol for recycling. The challenge was to design a symbol in 3D CAD that connects us to our waste. The multi-dimensional symbol illuminates a multi-dimensional problem that requires multi-dimensional solutions. The symbol includes mounting holes in the back, so it can be hung on a wall.
When 3D printed in ABS, this new symbol is designed to weigh 4.4 pounds, the equivalent weight of the trash each person currently creates each day, a physical reminder of the enormity of our individual contribution to a serious global problem.
It reminds us that our waste is a multi-dimensional problem and seeing and feeling a representation of the trash we create daily will help us think more globally. We need to forego immediate gratification if we are to ensure the long-term survival of the Earth.
I know what you are thinking. This new 3D printed recycling symbol wastes a bunch more plastic. I also thought that to be hypocritical, so our company is doing something about it. Here at GoEngineer, we sell 3D printers, which adds a significant contribution to the amount of plastic in landfills and the ocean.
However, here at the Santa Ana branch we have new Terracycle 3D printing material waste boxes (Figure 7) that allow us to recycle all of the waste, support materials, and discarded models back into their raw plastic form.
Terracycle’s mission is the ability to recycle everything, so I reached out and purchased the medium box (11”x11”x40”). The box has a prepaid label, so once it is filled up with used support, material, and models I no longer need, I just mail it to Terracycle and they do the rest. To find out more and purchase a box of your own, see https://www.terracycle.com/en-US/. Terracycle has partnered with some manufacturers so you can recycle some products for free, such as Colgate® toothbrushes.
A material solution
One material solution is to use plant-based hydro-biodegradable plastic, including polylactic acid (PLA), which decomposes into water and carbon dioxide in 47 to 90 days while in a composting facility at high temperatures (Harris). PLA is made from dextrose (a sugar), typically derived from corn, and the production of PLA uses 65% less fossil fuel and emits 80 to 90 percent fewer greenhouse gasses compared with petroleum-based plastic. Our company sells the Stratasys F-series printers, all of which can print in PLA.
Reduce, reuse, and recycle
Plastic is a complicated problem that requires global cooperation. This short video explains the problem and potential solutions (Kurgestgat). A solution to this enormous problem is not as simple as banning plastic. However, many uses of plastic, typically utensils and packaging, are unnecessary. In fact, nearly half of all plastic waste is in the form of packaging. Three simple ways to think of a personal solution is to reduce, reuse, and recycle.
Once way to reduce consumption is buying less clothing and when you do buy clothes, make sure the fabric is 100 percent organic. Today most clothing is a mix of organic and synthetic fibers, such as cotton and polyester, so every wash pollutes with over 1,900 plastic synthetic microfibers (Mark Anthony Browne). Refusing to buy synthetic fabrics and cutting back on laundry can make an impact.
Personally, I bring a reusable water bottle and reusable bamboo utensils everywhere I go. I also use a reusable coffee mug and a reusable K-Cup filter to make my coffee every morning at the office. I put the sugar and cream (from a glass bottle) in the mug first and brew the coffee on top, so I don’t need to waste a small straw to stir coffee for 3 seconds, only to have it remain on Earth forever and potentially kill another creature.
Consider bringing your own bag when you shop. If you must use soft plastic such as plastic bags, bring them to the nearest grocery store or Target so they can be recycled, as recycling companies cannot recycle soft plastic. If you need to use hard plastic, dispose of it in the proper bin. Stop and think before throwing things away to ensure the waste ends up in the proper bins and waste streams. More information on determining the recyclability of trash items is listed in Figure 5 below. Another option is switching from gum to mints because bubble gum is mostly made from plastic. The words “gum base” often indicate the following ingredients (Thomas):
A more complete list of the types of plastics in gum can be found on the US FDA website.
One of the best ways to recycle is to just recycle properly and pay attention to what you throw out. The golden rule sounds paradoxical, but when in doubt, just throw it out. If we throw items that cannot be recycled into the recycle bin, it’s more dangerous, as the trash company will most likely just throw out an entire recycle bin for having some trash in it. I’ve included an infographic below to help understand what can go in the recycling and what cannot.
At the office
We’ve made some additional changes here at the Santa Ana office to reduce our plastic waste. In the kitchen, we replaced plastic coffee stirrers and utensils with wooden ones, and we picked up a Terracycle box for recycling K-cups from our Keurig coffee machine.
We called the trash company to ensure that they can take the recycling and we put up signs to help guide customers who come for training to sort waste in the correct locations. However, we haven’t completely eliminated single-use plastic at the office as we still have single-use coffee cups, lids, and creamers for customers, but we’ve set foot in the right direction.
The solutions presented here are small steps toward a future in which we manage the plastic problem we have created. If we all make a small change, the effect will ripple like a stone in a pond. Utilizing companies such as Terracycle to help recycle our waste is a huge leap in the right direction, as are replacing certain smaller plastics with wooden alternatives and clear directions regarding the proper waste stream. We know we need to do more, such as have a bin for composting, so our food waste doesn’t end up producing methane in the landfill, and we hope to get there soon.
It is our responsibility as engineers to design with a circular economy in mind, to not think only about the design of products, but to look beyond just form, fit, and function to the sustainability and recycling of products. How much CO2 is released into the atmosphere as a result of manufacturing the product? How much energy does the product consume during both use and manufacturing? Are effluents that can impact vital ecosystems released into waterways during manufacturing as a result of the use of a product?
SOLIDWORKS Premium has a built-in tool called Sustainability that facilitates understanding of the carbon, energy, air, and water environmental impacts due to materials, manufacturing, transportation, usage, and end-of-life using a gold-standard GaBi Life Cycle Assessment environmental impact database from PE International. The tool also assesses the financial impact of materials and allows users to establish a baseline, so the total environmental impact of properties of materials can be compared.
Currently, the responsibility is on consumer or product designers, but it is unfair to expect us to fight the battle alone. We need help from the institutions put in place to protect us. We need to take a stand and pressure our governments to act.
Pressure your government to ban certain unnecessary petroleum based single-use plastics such as straws and plastics bags. This is already a reality in several nations, such as France and Costa Rica. Let’s pressure our governments to subsidize the research and viability for the mass production of plant-based biodegradable plastic as well as compostable packaging, and make access to proper waste streams for compost, plastic, and metals mandatory.
For example, in Orange Country, CA where I live, there is no municipal compost available as a waste stream. I found that this lack of municipal compost is common in many states across the United States, so if you would like to do something about it, I created a petition to the White House here: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/require-states-have-access-composting-waste-stream-addition-landfill-and-recycling.
If you believe companies should get a tax break for substituting petroleum-based plastic with plant-based plastics or equivalent compostable equivalent you can sign this petition here: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/provide-tax-breaks-companies-substitute-petroleum-based-plastic-compostable-or-plant-based-plastics.
Sadly, the United States currently recycles only 9 percent of its waste and just nine states, including Idaho, Florida, and Arizona have bans on plastic. One thing is certain: Our throw-away culture is dangerous and is creating an unlivable planet for our children and future generations. It would be a tragedy to see the things we create and consume eventually consume and destroy us, especially if we can prevent it.
–Andrews, Gianna. Plastics in the Ocean Affecting Human Health. n.d. https://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/health/case_studies/plastics.html. 27 Febuary 2019.
–Ashford, Molika. Live Science. 25 August 2010. https://www.livescience.com/32786-what-happens-inside-a-landfill.html. 27 Febuary 2019.
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “Cumulative Exposure and Feminine Care Products.” 2018. http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/healthandscience/cumulative-exposure-and-feminine-care-products/.
–Evans, Pete. K-Cup creator John Sylvan regrets inventing Keurig coffee pod system. 05 March 2015. https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/k-cup-creator-john-sylvan-regrets-inventing-keurig-coffee-pod-system-1.2982660. 19 November 2018.
–Harris, William. How long does it take for plastics to biodegrade. n.d. https://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/how-long-does-it-take-for-plastics-to-biodegrade.htm. 27 Febuary 2019.
–Kurgestgat. Plastic Pollution: How Humans are Turning the World into Plastic. 1 July 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RS7IzU2VJIQ&t=329s.
–Mark Anthony Browne, Phillip Crump, Stewart J. Niven, Emma Teuten, Andrew Tonkin, Tamara Galloway, and Richard Thompson. “Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Woldwide: Sources and Sinks.” Environmental Science & Technology (2011): 45 (21), 9175-9179. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es201811s.
–SaveOnEnergy. Land of Waste. 2018. https://www.saveonenergy.com/land-of-waste/. 15 November 2018.
–Sohn, Emily. Plastic decomposes quickly at sea, study finds. 20 August 2009. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/32493098/ns/us_news-environment/t/plastic-decomposes-quickly-sea-study-finds/#.XHc3IohKhEY. 27 Febuary 2019.
–Terry, Beth. My Plastic Free Life. 2007 – 2018. https://myplasticfreelife.com/plasticfreeguide/. 19 November 2018.
–TheWorldCounts. The World Counts. 17 June 2014. http://www.theworldcounts.com/stories/Plastic-Waste-Facts. 15 November 2018.
–Thomas, Pat. “Behand the Label: Chewing Gum.” Blog. 2010. https://theecologist.org/2010/jan/12/behind-label-chewing-gum.