3D filament is the basic consumable resource that most types of 3D printers use for printing. As a traditional printer needs ink cartridges in order to print, 3D printers need plastic filament. Most of the filament produced today is from virgin, unused petroleum based plastic which generates not only increasing amounts of global waste but contributes to carbon emissions, resulting in significant environmental damage. This provides a unique recycling opportunity to make filament out of used, plastic waste, specifically from PET plastic, which is the basis of soda bottles, consumed by many people around the world.
This section summarizes the main findings of the feasibility assessment of filament production from recycled PET plastic waste and aims to identify market potential, challenges and opportunities, and the range of costs and benefits associated with several alternatives. The main findings are summarized below.
The 3D printing market is booming: it was globally valued at US$2.5 billion in 2013, and is estimated to grow to a staggering $16.2 billion market by 2018. Similarly, the market for polymers used in 3D printing for the production of filament reached $310 million in 2014 and is estimated to grow to $1.4 billion by 2019.
Overall, additive manufacturing has become one of the most widely accepted emerging technologies and its services are being used by various industries like medical, automotive, consumer products, military, academics and others. However this new technology is not restricted to large industries and instead has also reached individual consumers. According to a recent Forbes article, a survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers found that one in three Americans would consider buying a 3D printer for their home in 2014.
Filament is produced through a simple six-step process: collect, clean and shred, extrude and spool, test package, and ship. The two main things needed are a supply of good quality, clean plastic and an extruder machine. Based on some basic assumptions, the cost of producing a spool of filament amounts to approximately $2.84 p/kg.
Currently the largest 3D printer markets are the USA, Germany, Netherlands and China. The Middle East and African markets are also expanding rapidly. The domestic East African market is currently very limited due to lack of knowledge, infrastructure and clear use cases, but has a high potential for growth. The target market for recycled PET filament can be either businesses (companies, universities, FabLabs) and/or individual consumers (3D print enthusiasts or home owners), both local and international.
Globally, a spool of filament is priced between $19-$175p/kg depending on material, diameter (mm), colour or other specific characteristics. In Tanzania, a spool of filament can cost up to $60-$80 including shipping costs from China.
Among the main challenges of the production of recycled PET filament is complexity of the distribution. This is particularly true if shipping to many locations as the shipping costs risk being very high. In fact, average shipping costs from Tanzania to different locations in Europe, the US, India or China range between $4,757 and $7,110 or $0.93 and $0.67 per spool, for a 20ft and 40ft container respectively. If the containers are not filled, the price per spool will be much higher. In addition to the shipping costs, import/export duties and tariffs need to be kept in mind. Each country has different regulations, requirements and fees. Last mile delivery can be as low as $8 (~€7) within a country such as the Netherlands (up to 10kg) but significantly more if the product has to be shipped overseas (e.g. up to $35 between the UK and the US).
Ensuring an ongoing, clean and high quality supply of plastic is also a significant challenge to producing recycled PET filament. This can be done either by working directly with waste pickers or through a third party (i.e. a local recycler who in turn works with waste pickers).
Additional challenges identified are creating a social brand in a market which is currently unbranded and increasing the popularity of PET filament as opposed to more widely used plastics such as ABS and PLA. On the other hand, there are significant opportunities in producing recycled PET filament. As mentioned above, the 3D printing market in booming in the US and Europe and growing rapidly in many other areas. In addition, the market for recycled filament is still relatively small and currently unbranded. There is a unique opportunity to create a strong social brand and to stay ahead of the technological revolution.