Environment & Ecology• INVENTION

3D Printing Plastic Waste into Practical Field Solutions

Advanced yet portable 3D printing—especially from recycled source materials—may revolutionize quick installation of replacement parts and simple equipment.
Lisa Beebe

After a natural disaster or conflict, disrupted infrastructure may reduce or eliminate access to clean water, electricity, and other basic needs. Such disruptions also create obstacles for aid and rescue, but 3D printing technology is beginning to simplify the process. 

In 2016, relief organization Plan International approached Mazher Mohammed of Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, for help exploring the potential of 3D printing in humanitarian aid. At the time, Mohammed was testing a sustainable manufacturing project called EcoPrinting: “We aimed to create a zero- to near-zero carbon footprint system for the conversion of waste plastics into usable items, powering all devices from renewable technology.” 

Mohammed worked with Plan International to test the portable, solar-powered 3D printing system in remote areas of the Solomon Islands. He and his team visited a local dump to gather waste plastic. They ground the plastic into small bits, fed it into an “ecostruder” machine that converted it into 3D-printer filament, and used that to print custom replacement parts for damaged water pipes. The process was so successful that afterward, Mohammed joked to his team that their work should be described as “extreme 3D printing.” “We have proven the ability to perform 3D printing in the remote jungles of Guadalcanal, using solar energy and recycled plastics in the middle of an active cyclone,” he said. 

The Solomon Islands project is just one example of how 3D printing is being used successfully in developing countries, even without using recycled plastic. Field Ready, a nonprofit organization based in Illinois, has used 3D printers to make replacement parts for medical equipment in a Nepal hospital damaged by an earthquake. Tarek Loubani of med-tech advocacy group Glia designed and tested a low-cost, open-source 3D printable stethoscope that is being used in hospitals in Gaza. Several organizations, including Nia Technologies, the Victoria Hand Project, and Doctors Without Borders, are 3D printing prosthetics for patients in developing countries.