How to recycle PLA
3D printing is a type of manufacturing process and just like any other manufacturing process, it produces waste. It provides us with the tools to design and develop new ideas, but every failed project and every mistake we make generates a useless item, or in other words trash. When we get rid of our failed projects, they end up in landfills, polluting our environment.
Fortunately, PLA isn’t as bad as other 3D printing materials because it’s biodegradable. After all, it’s made out of starches from corn or sugarcane, so it will break down after some exposure to the environment, unlike other thermoplastics. PLA won’t stay forever in the landfill, but there are better options out there than discarding it once used.
PLA is a recyclable material. However, we can’t recycle it together with other plastic products, such as water bottles, food containers, and other plastics. As you probably know, not all plastics are made equal. Therefore we can’t mix PET bottles with goods made out of ABS or PLA. First of all, each material has a different melting point, so we can’t mix them up during the recycling process. And secondly, if we mix different plastics together we are likely to end up with an inferior end product because certain characteristics will be lost or weakened.
Mainly, there are two methods of recycling PLA. You either call a recycling plan that handles this type of material, or you grind it yourself to create new filament. But before we go into more detail, you need to understand the advantages of recycling PLA as well as disadvantages.
Recycling comes with a series of obvious advantages, however, when it comes to 3D printing there are a few others you probably never thought about.
As mentioned, 3D printing produces a lot of waste. Most failed projects go in the trash can because they’re useless. But PLA is recyclable and reusable. Whether 3D printing is your hobby or part of your business, you can help nature by keeping your projects out of the mountains of trash and reuse them.
Filament costs money. So if simply being eco-friendly isn’t enough, think of all your unsuccessful projects as money in the trash (unless you recycle them). You have the option of saving money by making your own filament out of old discarded projects. However, to save money you’ll first have to spend some money.
Creating your own filament involves purchasing the right recycling hardware. After your initial investment, you’ll be able to convert your 3D prints into new batches of filament. But before you take this route you need to make sure it’s going to be lucrative. For example, if you print only at the hobby level, once a week or even less, it probably won’t be worth investing in everything you need to extrude filament from used PLA. In that case, there’s another cost-effective option.
Various 3D printing recycling programs have started popping up in the past few years as more people pick up this hobby. If you print things only on occasion, you can save all of your unsuccessful projects and then contact a 3D printing recycling service. These companies offer special rewards for turning in your used materials. Some will give you a discount on the new filament, others will pay you by the pound of scraps. Either way, recycling is good for your wallet as well.
Interesting Color Combinations
Recycling filament remains is a great way of creating and combining colors. Unleash your creativity and make interesting combinations that you can’t find at the store. Make new patterns and unique designs. What you can do is limitless.
While recycling is a good thing, there are some disadvantages that you need to consider before jumping on board. This may sound strange, but you’ll encounter issues that require troubleshooting and various challenges that might cost you additional money.
The Process is Complex
Recycling PLA isn’t as easy as throwing all your unsuccessful projects and filament leftovers in a recycling bin. If you choose to have it recycled by a plant, you’ll have to look around and contact a few to find out whether they can process PLA. Since the composition of PLA is so different from other thermoplastics and the material has a lower melting point, few plants are equipped to handle it. Some recycling facilities will even discard your prints because they lack an official identification code that tells them what kind of plastic it is. If you don’t have a dedicated 3D printing recycling service near you, you’ll have a tough time.
If you choose to reuse all of your old PLA material, you’ll have to either purchase your own recycling equipment or pay a 3D printing business to do it for you. To turn your projects into new PLA filaments, you’ll have to buy specialized hardware that isn’t cheap. You’ll need something that will turn your prints and filament waste into shredded scraps that can be melted down. Then you’ll need an extruder to melt and turn the plastic into filament. This solution isn’t usually cheap, especially for hobbyists.
Depending on the initial cost, processing effort, and time, creating filament out of your old 3D models might not be worth it.
Another major recycling problem is the fact that re-extruded filament can be of lower quality than brand new filament. Most plastics, PLA included, will turn out with a smaller tensile strength once remelted and extruded. A lower tensile strength automatically translates to a higher breakage risk as well as warping during the printing process.
If you don’t have the financial ability to invest in a high-quality PLA recycling machine, you should opt for professional recycling services instead. With cheap hardware, or improvised DIY recycling methods you may end up with an inferior material that will lead to unsuccessful prints.
Now that you understand what it means to recycle PLA, let’s start exploring the recycling process and find out how to reduce the amount of 3D printing waste you produce. As mentioned earlier, it’s not enough to throw the old prints and filament waste in a bin because most recycling plants will discard everything. So here are a couple of methods of recycling PLA.
Using Filament Recyclers
Professional filament recyclers are the ideal solution if you have the right budget for them. They enable you to convert your unsuccessful prints and filament waste into new filament. When purchasing a recycler you get everything you need to grind the scraps, melt them, and extrude a new filament spool. However, some cheaper models don’t come with a shredder, so keep that in mind when doing your research.
In addition, if you don’t want to invest in a ready-made recycler, you can take the DIY route and build your own recycler, at least partially. Most people adapt a powerful shredder that can handle PLA. Keep in mind that a simple home blender won’t be enough and it’s not recommended because the model is just not good enough. However, industrial shredders or powerful, high-quality blenders may perform as well as a 3D print shredder. As for the filament extruder, it should be purchased unless you’re really good with tools and well-equipped. You can find tutorials on how to make one, but it’s a serious challenge. Whatever you do, make sure the extruder is designed to work with PLA.
Remember that PLA is made out of organic compounds. This means we’re dealing with a biodegradable material that can be composted. If you leave PLA exposed to the elements, it will eventually be broken down into its organic elements thanks to water, bacteria, and fungi. On a side note, PLA isn’t a great material for outdoor projects because of this characteristic.
If you can’t recycle PLA, you can find specialized composting services that will take care of everything for you. While PLA is biodegradable, the process can take a year or more if it’s simply left out in the open or dumped in a landfill. However, some companies create the best natural conditions for PLA to quickly break down, reducing the composting time to a couple of months.
Alternatively, you can compost PLA on your own. Just keep in mind that it will take some time and some pieces might survive the process for a longer period.