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Reflow turns plastic waste into 3D print filament, sends profits back to waste pickers

In recent years, 3D printing has helped transform the face of manufacturing, leading some to call the technology a sign of the Third Industrial Revolution. Consumer-level printers are capable of printing sculptures, gadgets, and even parts for firearms. Meanwhile, industrial machines can churn out objects as sophisticated as unmanned airplanes.

But all that printing requires filament, the “ink” for 3D printers, and much of that filament is made of plastic, which the world is riddled with in the form of waste. With this in mind, an Amsterdam-based company called Reflow has launched a Kickstarter campaign to develop filament from plastic trash gathered by waste collectors in developing countries.

Related: Free A/C: This 3D-printed brick cools your house without electricity 

plastic bottles

When co-founder Jasper Middendorp visited recycling centers in Nairobi, Kenya last year, he witnessed how the waste collection, trade, and recycling system works in that country. “Waste collectors collect kilograms and kilograms of plastic per day and receive very money little for it,” he told Digital Trends. “They may receive 10-15 cents per kilogram and, for many, that’s their only income stream. Meanwhile, a kilogram of filament may cost around $30 per kilogram. There’s a huge disparity.” 

After meeting folks from the UK charity techfortrade, who’ve developed an open source extruders that make filaments from recycled plastics, Middendorp was inspired to use 3D printing for social well-being. He and his team at Reflow partnered with techfortrade and local initiatives in developing countries (including SticLab in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and AB3D in Nairobi, Kenya) who build 3D printers out of waste materials. 

Reflow’s socio-economic goal is two-fold: support waste collectors by establishing a market for recycled plastics, and also develop an infrastructure in which communities can use 3D printing to become more self-sufficient. To this end the company has pledged to invest 25 percent of their profits into local manufacturing initiatives. Their first production facility was built in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Valerian works at SticLab in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Valerian works at SticLab in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

“The exciting thing is the impact the technology can have in these countries.” Middendorp said. “Imagine if they could go from import reliance to strong local economies able to locally supply people with the products they actually need. Imagine what this can do for distributing transportation in a place like Nairobi where you may be stuck in traffic for hours each day.”

Due to the quality of filament from recycled plastics – which is less than that of “virgin” material – Reflow’s filament is intended for home use, though Middendorp sees applications in university maker groups and art projects as well. In fact, Reflow has teamed up with a number of artists and designers to create rewards for people who want to support the campaign but have no need for filament. Special rewards include a 3D-printed bauhaus chess set, Pokemon-like figurines, and a model stealth fighter jet.

Related: This coffee-based 3D printing filament emits a pleasant smell while you print with it

Middendorp admits he and his team face hurdles up ahead. For one, Reflow and its partnered communities will have to scale up their collection, recycling, and distribution practices as volume increases. The company also hasn’t quite mastered the consistency needed for consumer grade filament, and there are tremendous logistics behind monitoring the actual impact of their social goals. 

Nonetheless, Reflow hopes to address all these issues through its Kickstarter campaign, dedicating a large portion of their funds to exploring and solving these problems. “We can propel this Kickstarter into kickstarting 3D printing in developing countries,” he said. And Middendorp thinks his company can overcome the low oil and plastic prices which have pushed a number of recycling companies out of business. If all goes well, Reflow aims to ship their first orders by early 2017.