Life cycle analysis of distributed recycling of post-consumer high density polyethylene for 3-D printing filament

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  • Life cycle analysis performed on recycling of high density polyethylene (HDPE).
  • HDPE filament is used additive manufacturing with open-source 3-D printers.
  • Compared energy & greenhouse gas emissions for distributed vs centralized recycling.
  • Distributed recycling has lower environmental impact than centralized recycling.


The growth of desktop 3-D printers is driving an interest in recycled 3-D printer filament to reduce costs of distributed production. Life cycle analysis studies were performed on the recycling of high density polyethylene into filament suitable for additive layer manufacturing with 3-D printers. The conventional centralized recycling system for high population density and low population density rural locations was compared to the proposed in home, distributed recycling system. This system would involve shredding and then producing filament with an open-source plastic extruder from post-consumer plastics and then printing the extruded filament into usable, value-added parts and products with 3-D printers such as the open-source self replicating rapid prototyper, or RepRap. The embodied energy and carbon dioxide emissions were calculated for high density polyethylene recycling using SimaPro 7.2 and the database EcoInvent v2.0. The results showed that distributed recycling uses less embodied energy than the best-case scenario used for centralized recycling. For centralized recycling in a low-density population case study involving substantial embodied energy use for transportation and collection these savings for distributed recycling were found to extend to over 80%. If the distributed process is applied to the U.S. high density polyethylene currently recycled, more than 100 million MJ of energy could be conserved per annum along with the concomitant significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It is concluded that with the open-source 3-D printing network expanding rapidly the potential for widespread adoption of in-home recycling of post-consumer plastic represents a novel path to a future of distributed manufacturing appropriate for both the developed and developing world with lower environmental impacts than the current system.

Key Findings

Energy Demand & Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

Case Energy Demand (MJ/kg HDPE) Percent Reduction (%) for Distributed Recycling Greenhouse Gas Emissions (kg CO2 eq per kg HDPE)
Distributed Recycling: Insulated RecycleBot 8.74 -- 0.52
Virgin Resin 79.67 89 1.82
Centralized Recycling – High Density Population: Detroit 9 3 0.63
Centralized Recycling – Low Density Population: Copper Harbor (monthly) 28.4 69 2.65
Centralized Recycling – Low Density Population: Copper Harbor (bi-weekly) 48.9 82 4.04

See Also

Literature Reviews