Can fair trade plastic save people and the planet?

October 1, 2014 by Marcia Goodrich, Michigan Technological University

Can fair trade plastic save people and the planet?
When Michigan Tech�s Joshua Pearce developed fair trade standards for 3D printer filament, he had two goals: improving the lives of waste pickers and making waste plastic so valuable that scenes like this would be a thing of the past. Credit: Thinkstock
( —It's old news that open-source 3D printing is cheaper than conventional manufacturing, not to mention greener and incredibly useful for making everything from lab equipment to chess pieces. Now it's time add another star to the 3D printing constellation. It may help lift some of the world's most destitute people from poverty while cleaning up a major blight on the earth and its oceans: plastic trash.

At the center of the movement is a new set of standards inspired by fair trade products ranging from diamonds to chocolate.

"We are creating a new class of material called ethical 3D printing , like fair trade coffee," said Joshua Pearce of Michigan Technological University. "It's a way to help the poorest of the poor up the economic ladder."

Waste pickers in the developing world barely eke out a living scouring landfills for trash to sell. They usually don't bother with plastic, however, because it has almost no value.

But thanks to an emerging market, waste plastic may soon be a more alluring target; it can serve as a feedstock for 3D printer filament. What makes it especially attractive is the cost of conventional filament made from virgin plastic: about $35 to $50 a kilogram.

Pearce's group has already developed a recyclebot that turns milk jugs and other plastic trash into filament for pennies on the dollar. And next-generation commercial-grade recyclebots are creating opportunities for businesses. But for waste pickers to truly benefit, Pearce says, the recycled filament industry will need to adhere to certain fair labor and environmental practices.

Here's how it would work. Under fair trade standards for ethical 3D printing filament, manufacturers would guarantee that their enterprise meets certain conditions, which Pearce and his colleagues published in the Journal of Sustainable Development. They include the following:

  • minimum pricing to assure that workers receive fair wages
  • a fair-trade premium added to the filament's price that supports development projects
  • a regular work week of 48 hours and a ban on child labor and forced labor
  • environmentally conscious manufacturing practices
  • safeguards for workers' health and safety
  • the right to unionize
  • a ban on discrimination and sexual and physical harassment

Businesses that make or use ethical filament could charge a premium for their product, though it would still cost less than conventional 3D filament. "Filament prices are so high that places like Protoprint could sell their filament at half that price and still give pickers a living wage while doing good for the environment," said Pearce.

Protoprint, a 3D printing firm in Pune, India, is collaborating with techfortrade. The London-based nonprofit harnesses technology to eliminate poverty through economic development. After working with Pearce, techfortrade plans to fully implement his fair trade standards for filament in the Ethical Filament Foundation.

"Joshua's knowledge and his passion, plus his open, collaborative approach, persuaded us that his ethical filament standards would do for 3D what Fair Trade did for coffee," said William Hoyle, CEO of techfortrade. "We're now close to making this idea a reality; Protoprint is planning to make the first ethical filament offering available in January, and our other ventures in Latin America will follow."

Explore further: Turning old milk jugs into 3D printer filament

More information: The paper, "Evaluation of Potential Fair Trade Standards for an Ethical 3D Printing Filament," is available online: … e_filament-libre.pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Antarctic ice shelf 'sings' as winds whip across its surface

October 16, 2018

Winds blowing across snow dunes on Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf cause the massive ice slab's surface to vibrate, producing a near-constant set of seismic "tones" scientists could potentially use to monitor changes in the ice ...

New understanding of Mekong River incision

October 16, 2018

An international team of earth scientists has linked the establishment of the Mekong River to a period of major intensification of the Asian monsoon during the middle Miocene, about 17 million years ago, findings that supplant ...

World Heritage sites threatened by sea level rise

October 16, 2018

From Venice and the tower of Pisa to the medieval city of Rhodes, dozens of UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Mediterranean basin are deeply threatened by rising sea levels, researchers warned Tuesday.

Was life on the early Earth purple?

October 16, 2018

Early life forms on Earth may have been able to generate metabolic energy from sunlight using a purple-pigmented molecule called retinal that possibly predates the evolution of chlorophyll and photosynthesis. If retinal has ...

New interactive scenario explorer for 1.5 degrees C pathways

October 16, 2018

IIASA and the Integrated Assessment Modeling Consortium (IAMC) have made the scenarios underlying last week's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 1.5°C Special Report publicly available in an interactive online ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (2) Oct 02, 2014
"It's old news that open-source 3D printing is cheaper than conventional manufacturing, not to mention greener and incredibly useful for making everything from lab equipment to chess pieces."

This statement is only true in certain cases.

In mass production molding is still the cheapest and quickest way to produce plastic parts.

There is no way a 3D printer could make parts as quickly as injection molding which can cast many dozens of parts in the same shot and repeat the whole process in a matter of seconds.

And as the article mentions the filament is quite expensive and in my experience comes preloaded in a plastic cartridge which is supplied by a vendor with a large amount of packaging waste. The cartridges were expensive and could only make fairly small parts before requiring change out.

At the same time there is a different type of plastic which is used as a support medium to enable the creation of voids and overhangs which ends up being waste.
5 / 5 (2) Oct 02, 2014
The notion that 3D printing will replace conventional manufacturing is only true for small volume parts. My experience has been that the printed parts have less than desirable surface finishes, textures and some degree of porosity. Especially in certain axes.

To improve the surface finish requires increasing the resolution of the printing which increases the time it takes to print.

Manufacturing processes such as blow molding or centrifugal molding will never be replaced by 3D printing IMO.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.