When you think about it, this is an odd question to ask – 3D printing is an additive process, so how could there be any waste? As reasonable a question that is, one quickly learns that there is indeed wasted material from 3D printers.

We at TRINOTA have concluded that wasted material comes from 3 outcomes:

  • Material wasted during the warmup process of the 3D printer – the extruder generally wastes about a foot of material while warming up, and this happens at the beginning of every project.
  • Errors occurring during the printing process, which is generally caused by low level/entry level printer’s software issues, or lack of a supporting systems resulting in a literal heap of melted plastic.
  • Failed ideas. We’ve all had this happen – the idea looks like a Davinci level of brilliance in your CAD program, but doesn’t meet up to the standards once it becomes a tangible object.

Now, back to the original question of recyclable/reuse of the material – in short, the answer is yes and no.

What makes a material recyclable is as simple as asking “if there will be an end user of the recycled material?”. If there is somebody willing to buy the end product, then the material is recyclable – generally any material is recyclable, as long as there is somebody willing to pay for it.

There are 3 types of recycling processes that are used, depending on the material:

  • Physical
  • Chemical
  • Pyrolysis

Physical recycling could be grinding of the material until it is broken down into a more simpler version of itself. Chemical recycling is the process of adding a solvent to a material, breaking it down to the useable form of said material. Pyrolysis is the process of taking a material and breaking it down to its petroleum state and used by oil companies.The materials generally used by at home users for 3D printing are: ABS, Polylactic Acid (PLA) and if you’re lucky Nylon.

ABS is a rather tough plastic (LEGO is a famous use of ABS) and it could be ground down, but it doesn’t melt down cleanly. When it comes to grinding it down, it takes rather fancy and heavy duty grinders to break it down into pellet form, which could be utilized by Selective Laser Sintering (SLS machines), but for Extruding style 3D Printers, you’d still have to melt it down somehow into a homogenous body, then get it into a spool that should be many meters long, with a tube diameter of 3mm to be useable – if that sounds expensive, that’s because it would be and you’re better off just buying new material.

Nylon, because of its composition, is inherently not reusable to you for 3D printing, once it has been used.

PLA is doable, since it is softer in nature, but the process required is still rather similar to ABS, and you’d be better off just buying more fresh material, if you wanted consistent results with your printing.

Closing Thoughts:

The words reusable and recyclable may seem like synonyms upon first glance, but their meanings, when it comes to at home users of 3D printers, are polar opposites. As you read, a material can be recyclable and not reusable at the same time – it just depends on whom the end user is. For Example: ABS and NYLON are simply too impractical for at home users to attempt to reuse, but they may be recycled via pyrolysis and used by oil companies.

So what would I do? I would absolutely recycle any material wasted by my printer via the use of the recycling bin, and purchase more material; if not only to prevent the headache of trying to bring a material back to life, but to get the security of knowing that I’m dealing with a material that will have a consistent quality, throughout the whole spool.