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3D Printing: A Prototype for Upward Social Mobility

In India, a company called Protoprint aims to mobilize disadvantaged workers to gather and recycle waste plastic to produce filament yarn for 3D printers.

by / April 22, 2014

For anyone who has seen it in action, 3D printing is a mesmerizing marvel. The ability to make on demand copies of anything in three dimension – from medical implants and jet parts to a simple key – still seems like science fiction.

As 3D printing becomes mainstream, some question how much of this cutting-edge technology is environmentally sustainable.While 3D printing holds a lot of promise, the fact is, all 3D printing consumes significant amounts plastic filament yarn to produce objects. Environmentalists fear, as more and more 3D printers start humming, more and more spools of plastic are going to be required to build a new DIY world.

For instance, Gartner forecasts a 75 percent growth rate for 3D printing by the end of 2014, bumping 3D printer shipments up to 98,000 units. This roughly translates to the consumption of around 1.5 million tons of filament yarn by the end of 2014, according to the Ethical Filament Foundation, a UK-based initiative to encourage production of “ethically produced” 3D filament yarn at the consumer level.

The burgeoning growth of 3D printing threatens to create more plastic waste, which, like all other plastic, often winds up in landfills and garbage dumps.

But entrepreneurs and social activists are devising ways to solve this problem while boosting economic opportunity.

In India, a company called Protoprint aims to mobilize disadvantaged workers to gather and recycle waste plastic to produce filament yarn for 3D printers.

Based in Pune, a city of 6 million about two hours east of Mumbai, Protoprint calls itself a social enterprise empowering waste-pickers in India with the ability to produce 3D filament yarn from recycled plastic litter. Protoprint markets these filament yarns globally. It also uses them to provide affordable 3D printing services to students and professionals.

Waste plastic, of course, is found everywhere. The Ethical Filament Foundation’s data reveal that 15 million waste pickers worldwide collect, sort and process recyclable materials in cities in developing nations, yet they make up some of the world’s most disadvantaged communities, living in dire poverty.

In India for instance, typically waste pickers sell the plastic to local scrap dealers or middlemen, making only $1.50 each day.

While the size of India's waste picker populations is anybody’s guess, in a city like Pune alone, over 2,000 waste pickers scour the city daily collecting waste plastic from 400,000 households. “These waste pickers are hardly recognized by the society consequently leading a marginalized life,” said Pratibha Sharma, the business expansion and outreach coordinator at Pune-based SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling), a waste-picker union that supplies plastic waste to Protoprint.

It is this reality then that makes production of ethical 3D printer filament such a hot issue in 3D printing.

“Protoprint's ethical filament will have a huge environmental impact while empowering waste pickers financially and socially, and benefit those who work hands-on in the traditional recycling industry but are never given credit for what they do,” said Suchismita Pai, Co-founder of Protoprint.

“Fair trade is about ensuring that the benefits go to the rightful hands, and that they reach the grass roots,” added Pai. “That is exactly what Protoprint aims to help achieve. Cutting edge technology often leaves the marginalized and lesser privileged on the sidelines and it is important that it does not happen with 3D printing. The idea is to be proactively inclusive.”

According to its founders, Protoprint is unique, both in producing 3D filament ethically and also the company’s commitment to social empowerment.

“The model is very distinct as it takes technology and work to where the people are, instead of centralizing work at one point. This also means that the micro entrepreneurs can work at their own pace, time, and space. We believe that people are central to all endeavors and quality of life, flexibility of work space and time is as important as the financial gains of business,” said Pai.

According to SWaCH, the arrangement with Protoprint is currently helping about 20 waste pickers in the city get direct access to the end-user market, eliminating middlemen. 

“The tie-up with Protoprint is a sort of a value addition to the cause of this organization because it offers the waste pickers a role to play in the growth of a micro-enterprise,” said Sharma.

SWaCH hopes the idea catches on because, “as this enterprise grows, more waste pickers could brought into the net.”

“Working with Protoprint has turned my life around,” said Komal, a 19-year old waste picker, who is also a daughter of a waste picker working with SWaCH. “I am being exposed to different technology and machines and I feel that my work is making a difference. The plastic which was discarded earlier is now being reused through different forms. Besides, Protoprint is also enabling me to support my family and meet my college expenses.”

The concept, Pai said, is getting noticed. Protoprint has been invited to several 3D technology meets including recently held 3D print shows in London and New York. The founders are also in talks with organizations and international experts that deal with waste plastic and solid waste management communities across the globe.

Apart from that, Protoprint is working with Ethical Filament Foundation to duplicate its process and production of ethically sourced filament in South America and Africa.

“Over the past year, we’ve received a lot of interest from a number of different organizations interested in replicating our model,” Pai said. “And soon, Protoprint ethical filament will be available worldwide through our web portal."


Indrajit Basu Contributing Writer

Indrajit Basu is an international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.

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