3D Printing, Selective Recycling, and Near-Infinite Reusability

Traditional manufacturing in its simplest form involves taking raw materials and transforming them through one or more processes into finished products. One such process is the taking of some large volume of a raw material and stripping it down into a single part. Hundreds or thousands of such parts are then combined and result in things you use every day be that your car, the gas pump, the baby stroller, your office door, or any one of the hundreds of millions of products available around the world. This particular process, known as Subtractive Manufacturing, results in billions of tons of waste annually, has enormous capital costs, and racks up potentially trillions in externalized costs such as the environmental effects of over-extracting through mining and other extraction processes.

In contrast to Subtractive Manufacturing we have Additive Manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D Printing, or the building up of parts from raw materials, literally adding layers of raw material one upon the other to create a part. Ask someone, “What is 3D Printing?” and most people will answer with a story of seeing some plastic toy being built up over a bit of time at some consumer store demo or on YouTube. What they aren’t seeing are the large-scale commercial printers that are capable of printing full-size car, truck, and construction equipment bodies; real estate “parts” such as modular rooms and even entire houses; and so on.

The many impacts of the outputs of 3D Printing are discussed quite regularly today, whether those are conversations on the reduction or elimination in tens of thousands (and more likely millions, over time) of manufacturing jobs, or the ability to have nearly anything custom-built – for enough money of course. Meanwhile the discussion of inputs largely revolves around the fraction of raw materials required and the near-zero absence of materials waste. What’s often left out of the latter conversation is the idea that, if one can build a part up by layering raw materials on top of one another, one can reduce a part to its raw materials with surprisingly similar results.

Modern recycling processes, known collectively as Selective Recycling, are focused on just that. Armed with the latest in sorting and “plucking” systems, materials identification algorithms, and chemical processes, commercial “recovery plants” are advancing to a state where in some cases nearly all raw material can be recaptured from those gadgets we return in exchange for the latest hit item, or from that industrial machine that has reached its end-of-life and is being replaced with a more advanced system.

While some materials are still at low recovery rates versus others, for example only roughly 60% of iron can be recovered through advanced recycling processes while as much as of 99.9% of copper can be recovered, what happens as these advances continue to encompass more of our periodic table of elements?

What happens in as we approach a near-equilibrium state where we recover nearly all of the raw materials used in our production of… anything? What will become of the materials extraction industry in that time? What will our approaches to waste and to recycling transform into? What of our concepts of the retail store, of online shopping, or industrial equipment sales when we are able to simply print whatever it is we want or need? How about the effects on the shipping industry?

What becomes of our thoughts on the value of a thing when scarcity is decimated?

Like the impact that SpaceX’s approach to rockets is having on the space industry, the impact of this combination of Additive Manufacturing and Selective Recycling will be monumentally far-reaching. If you’re interested in exploring the significance of these transformational technologies further you can follow me here, on Twitter, or on LinkedIn as I scout ahead into our abundant and amazing future.


Additional reading on recent advances in recycling technology

Sandra R. Mueller, Patrick A. Wäger, David A. Turner, Peter J. Shaw, Ian D. Williams, A framework for evaluating the accessibility of raw materials from end-of-life products and the Earth’s crust, In Waste Management, Volume 68, 2017, Pages 534-546, ISSN 0956-053X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2017.05.043

Tianzu Yang, Pengchun Zhu, Weifeng Liu, Lin Chen, Duchao Zhang, Recovery of tin from metal powders of waste printed circuit boards, In Waste Management, Volume 68, 2017, Pages 449-457, ISSN 0956-053X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2017.06.019

Zhi-Yuan Zhang, Fu-Shen Zhang, TianQi Yao, An environmentally friendly ball milling process for recovery of valuable metals from e-waste scraps, In Waste Management, Volume 68, 2017, Pages 490-497, ISSN 0956-053X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2017.07.029

Bowyer, J.; Bratkovich, S.; Fernholz, K.; Frank, M.; Groot, H.; Howe, J.; Pepke, E. Understanding Steel Recovery and Recycling Rates and Limitations to Recycling; Dovetail Partners Inc.: Minneapolis, MN, USA, 2015; pp. 1–12.

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