Dear Recyclebank: Can you recycle 3D-printed objects? –Michael L.
Dear Michael: Most 3D-printed objects could theoretically be recycled, but you probably cannot recycle them curbside.
Not only are there many materials used for 3D printing, there are a number of different methods used for 3D printing as well. When you think of at-home or non-industrial 3D printers, you are likely thinking of Fused Deposition Modeling technology, which is when a solid plastic is pushed through a heated nozzle and melted drop-by-drop in a given pattern. This builds up layers one-by-one, to create a three-dimensional shape.
The two most commonly used materials for at-home 3D printing are Polylactic Acid (PLA) and Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). PLA is a biodegradable thermoplastic made from renewable resources like cornstarch or sugar cane.
While PLA is recyclable, it cannot be recycled with other types of plastics because it has a lower melting temperature that causes problems at recycling centers. This means PLA should not be recycled with your other curbside recycling. PLA can be composted within 1-3 months at industrial composting facilities, but is not easily composted from home.
ABS is also a recyclable thermoplastic, however, unlike PLA, it is petroleum based. Polyamide (PA), known more commonly as Nylon, is another (theoretically) recyclable material regularly used for 3D printing, but don’t put it in your curbside recycling.
In the US, all three of these materials are considered #7 (other) plastics. While some communities accept #7 for curbside pickup, unless you are incorporating a Resin Identification Code marking into your blueprint, your objects will be unmarked when complete. This is one problem with recycling 3D-printed plastics, as most community recycling programs do not accept unmarked plastics.
The easiest way to recycle 3D printed objects made of ABS, PLA, or Nylon is to contact your local Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) and ask if they will take them. Not sure what material your object is made of? One easy way to tell PLA from ABS or Nylon is to subject it to heat. PLA is so temperature sensitive that if you left it in the trunk of your car on a hot day it would begin to soften or deform.
If you make lots of 3D printed objects for work or for personal use, consider investing in a machine that can recycle your unwanted 3D-printed objects and 3D-printing waste right at home, such as the ProtoCycler or the Filabot. Machines like these grind existing plastics down then melt the pieces together into long strands and coil them onto spools to be used to feed 3D printers. Talk about coming full circle!