Is filament feedstock better for the environment than ‘nurdles’?

Something that has become painfully obvious over the last week is that handling granular HDPE is a very messy business indeed. These plastic nurdles, as i just discovered they are called, act a bit like sand in that they get into everything. Even the slightest spill leaves you finding them in your clothes, in your carpet and in every crack for weeks to come. Most of these spilt nurdles end up in the vacuum cleaner and ultimately, in the trash. On their journey to, or once at, the local landfill there is a high likely hood that they will find their way into a waterway and then into the ocean.

From there it results in the ‘Great pacific garbage patch‘ which is explained in short youtube clip.

The key points were that:

  • Plastics in the ocean last for a very very long time as there is no organic organism that breaks them down. Also very little UV radiation penetrates far into the water.
  • These nurdles look like fish eggs and so are eaten by birds and fish alike.
  • Once consumed the plastic can not be digested, and so if enough is eaten, can stave the animal to death.
  • The plastic attracts pollutants in the water and so increases the concentration of toxic chemicals by thousands of times. This is then consumed and makes its way into the food chain.

This all effects you and me through damage to fish stocks and a build up of very dangerous chemicals in the food chain which can work its way up to us.

So what does this all have to do with repraps?

Well lets be very presumptuous for a second and assume that:

  • 3D printers become as popular as we all hope in that 10 years from now 0.1% of people on this planet have one.
  • The developments made today in the reprap community set the standard for the cheap mass produced 3d printers of the future.

Just like the $49.95 laser printer sitting on your desk there will come a day when mass production also makes 3d printers affordable and easy to use for the masses. If these 3d printers use nurdles then you run the risk millions of small spills every day in the home and at every point on the supply chain to the home. These could add up to tens of thousands of tons of plastic nurdles finding their way into the oceans every year. On the other hand, if these printers used filament feed stock, then the risk of ‘spills’ is dramatically reduced.

So if the reprap community continues to set the standard of using filaments feedstock instead nurdles it could be very beneficial for the environmental in the years to come.

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About Richard

I am a Materials Engineering working in the field of Magnetic Materials in Melbourne, Australia. This blog covers my personal interest in all things CNC.
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3 Responses to Is filament feedstock better for the environment than ‘nurdles’?

  1. Nudel says:

    Very interesting points.

    How would PLA fare in this setting? I understand it has rather specific requirements to start the biodegradation process. “60-65 degrees C and the presence of moisture, air and microbes”, according to an documentary I stumbled upon from National Geographic called Secrets of packaging. So if you need an above average compost bin to degrade it, will it degrade at all in water?

    I see the biggest interest in being able to make our own filament (of any plastic) is the ability to grind up old or bad prints, and reuse the plastic. It’s probably unavoidable that some of the grains will end up in a landfill, but it will at least be much less than if the entire printed part is thrown out.

    • Richard says:

      ‘Secrets of packaging’ sounds like something I might be interested in. I found it here if anyone else is interested.

      A quick google about PLA found this comment “PLA does not biodegrade readily at temperatures less than 60°C due to its ‘glass transition’ temperature being close to 60°C.” Source. So although it will most likely break down in land fill it may be quite resistant to microbial attack in the ocean.

      Which is a real shame.

  2. Pingback: Umweltbewußt: Draht statt Granulat? | GRRF

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