Setting the Standard: ethical filament standards evaluation

While 3D printers are beginning to come down in price, even as their quality improves, the most affordable machines can still be prohibitively expensive for the majority of communities in emerging economies where local manufacturing could make a real difference to people’s way of life. Then there are the logistical costs of running a machine which needs constant electricity and feedstock to function effectively. Importing virgin filament into areas like South America and Africa is impractical when there is already an informal system of waste pickers sorting and selling waste plastic for recycling. Using the right equipment and knowledge there is evidence that this waste plastic can be converted into viable filament for 3D printers.

Joshua Pearce, together with several members of Michigan Technological and State universities (B. Wijnen and S. R Feeley), has written an evaluation detailing the background to their work on these techniques. These are designed not only to improve the quality of filament made from recycled waste plastic, but also to develop technical and ethical standards for the filament itself, to certify that it is of the highest quality and will not cause damage to expensive printers that require precise diameter and strength of filament to produce the best prints. Copies of these standards can be found here and these will be used to test the quality of all ethically made filament from recycled waste plastic, which comes to the EFF for certification.

With improvements in 3D printing technology, increasing demand for plastic filament which retails at a considerable mark up, waste picking unions working to improve conditions and job opportunities for their members, and increased interest in perfecting extrusion machines and the technology required to turn plastic waste into filament, the creation of ethical filament and the encouragement of social businesses in developing countries is important now.

The summary itself focuses on establishing a market demand for ethical filament, evaluating the potential which such a product could have in a consistently evolving and cutting edge field. Recycling waste plastic for filament is nowhere near a perfect system yet and everything from the machines to the techniques used will still need to be developed, adapted and improved to make such a product a viable commercial commodity. The standards are split into two: the “Fair Trade” focus dealing with economic, social and environmental production requirements, and the “technical” levels which the filament will be expected to meet to receive certification. Areas covered include: 1. Minimum pricing, 2. The potential for and the application of a fair trade premium 3. Labour standards 4. Environmental standards 5. Health and safety standards 6. Social standards.

Waste pickers will be vital for the development of this circular economy. Production of ethical 3D printer filament will produce higher revenue and provide legitimate businesses with potential for development and expansion. The environmental concerns are a great driving force behind improving techniques and turning waste plastic into filament so more waste isn’t being created. But the ethical, social element comes from improving and ensuring good working standards for waste pickers and that they get an appropriate return for the backbreaking work they do.

Using these standards we hope to get as many people as possible talking, sharing and improving the work so that we can get a valuable circular product off the ground. With collaboration, it will be possible to increase access to 3D printing so that it really does open up manufacturing opportunities in the developing world in an ecological, social, ethical and positive way.

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