Reduce, Reuse, Reprint: Turning Plastic Waste into Filament

By Victoria Lubas | April 21, 2020

the RePrintBot team posing together

The RePrint Bot team: students Jeremy Jang, Nicolas Jorquera, Julie Ryoo, Ashton Chan, Samuel Bekker, Alex Sung; and project sponsor Dung Dinh Luong

The NYU Tandon RePrint Bot Team Designs an Easy-to-Use Extruder

VSCO girls may be setting trends with their prominently displayed S’well water bottles and Hydro Flasks, but disposable plastic water bottles and other single-use plastics continue to dominate lunch boxes and workouts worldwide. According to National Geographic, one million plastic bottles are sold globally every minute, each taking 450 years to fully degrade. 3D printing is also an expanding field in which the majority of projects require the use of plastics. NYU Tandon School of Engineering’s RePrint Bot project is doing its part to combat this problem by building a machine capable of turning bottles and other plastics into 3D printing filament.

Vertical Integration Projects Provide Endless Opportunities

RePrint Bot is part of the Vertical Integration Project (VIP) program at NYU Tandon, in which students gain hands-on experience solving real-world problems while earning college credit. RePrint Bot consists of a team of undergraduate Tandon students, headquartered at the NYU MakerGarage, who are bringing their varying skills and expertise to the goal of reducing waste, both in the form of discarded bottles and 3D printed projects.

Led by senior, Alex Sung, and moderated by assistant professor Dũng Dinh Luong, the project affords students a chance to apply the lessons they’ve learned in their engineering and computer classes. Sung explains that the program allows students to "identify [which] field of engineering [they prefer and consider] ...most applicable to [them]" through a real-world, hands-on experience. Team member Nicolas Jorquera appreciates the lessons he’s learned through his work with RePrint Bot, noting that it is "very different to try to build and troubleshoot" than it is to learn "the theory behind it" in a classroom.

VIP classes are open to all NYU students, and the variety of projects keep the program open to a range of academic backgrounds and ways of thinking. Team member Samuel Bekker appreciates the project for giving him the "experience and ability to collaborate with other students in different fields." Projects with interdisciplinary focuses, such as the medical VIP MakerBrace, tend to attract students from various fields, while projects like RePrint Bot tend to attract mostly engineering students. Computer science freshman Jeremy Jang explained that RePrint Bot is "not applicable to [him directly] but very interesting. … [It’s] nice to be able to gain hardware skills."

How the RePrint Bot Works

The RePrint Bot's primary function is creating raw material from used and discarded plastic to be made into 3D printer filament, giving the plastic new life and numerous creative possibilities. The process begins when the plastic is put into a shredder which chops up the plastic bottles into manageable raw materials. Next, the shredded plastic is put in a filament extruder, where it is warmed and spun into long plastic strands of 3D printer filament. The strands are wound onto a spool that can then be put into a 3D printer where it will be heated and placed according to the specifications of the 3D print file, creating whatever shape has been designed.

Currently, Sung says the team is in the process of "building a new extruder that [they] think will be a lot more efficient." Team member Ashton Chan also wants to seek out ways to "fix inconsistencies in filament shape." A more efficient extruder and perfected filament shape means the team will be one step closer to achieving their goal of creating a machine that makes the recycling process more streamlined and efficient with little need for human intervention.

diagram illustrating the flow of waste plastic from recycling, into a shredder, and finally a melter which produces usable 3D printing filament

Diagram of how the RePrint Bot works: plastic waste is shredded and fed into the RePrint Bot prototype, which converts it into a spool of ready-to-use 3D printing filament. Diagram courtesy of NYU Tandon RePrint Bot.

A Promising Future

The members of the RePrint Bot team envision several ways that this machine could revolutionize the 3D printing landscape. Their goals, ranging from sustainability to educational opportunities motivate them to continue tinkering. Luong explained that a user-friendly "machine [could be brought] to a public area so people can recycle plastic bottles and see [their] 3D print" designs come to life. Team member Julie Ryoo feels that presenting the recycling process in a short, able-to-be-witnessed time frame has the potential to create excitement around the recycling process, saying, "if they can see the process it might inspire them more to recycle."

Sung feels that once the project is finished, RePrint Bot would serve the greatest purpose in densely-populated communities — such as universities, corporations, and off-shore U.S. military bases — where there is the potential for large amounts of plastic waste. Sung explains that ideally, the completed bot would, "remove the overhead by quickly recycling waste and create the items [people in these communities] need when they’re needed." Chan sees RePrint Bot as a way to give "low-income communities" access to the field of 3D printing by "providing a machine to teach 3D printing and designing stuff with [the program] Solid Works."

To join RePrint Bot’s mission and work toward additional potential uses, fill out the application and attach your resume. Or, learn about other ongoing Vertical Integration Projects through Tandon’s website to see how you can apply your existing skills and expand your knowledge through real-world learning.