A decade ago a Dutch student named Dave Hakkens started an organisation called Precious Plastic. They’re still going today, stronger than ever, and have designed machines to recycle plastic and made the plans available online free for any use whatsoever. They’ve helped small groups around the world to make and use those machines. From a handful of people setting up PreshPlast, they now have thousands of small shops, communities, and makers worldwide who recycle plastic and transform it into valuable / useful / beautiful objects and building materials. The technology is proven and viable, and I found it inspirational.
But here’s the problem:
Those machines make material, not finished products. Let’s see what that means. First, there’s the raw material. In recycling, the plastic waste we collect is like the mineral ore, or the trees. In conventional manufacture, the ores become metal ingots, the trees become sawmill-bound logs.
Most of the Precious Plastic machines are the processes along the way to producing a material that can eventually be worked into products. The shredder turns it into semi-uniform flakes, which can then be used to make plastic sheets, or extruded into filaments or pellets, that in turn can get turned into injection-molded end products, or building materials like extruded beams.
However, the machines are expensive for smaller groups, so there’s always an initial outlay, and most groups don’t really envisage just how much is involved in finally having a saleable product. Yes, you can sell 1.2m x 1.2m x 1.5cm plastic sheets, but they are a building material, not a finished product. Imagine you want to build furniture but what you have is a machine that turns out plywood sheets. You can extrude 5mm thick filament but it still needs to be woven into baskets. You can extrude 38mm x 42mm beams but they’re still just the structure of the furniture that you cut sheets of plastic to size and shape and attach.
And that’s the bugbear of it all – $20,000 – $30,000 worth of machines and you have nothing to actually sell yet. There are also people safely and effectively working with repurposed domestic appliances and various inexpensive items (car jacks, handmade plywood forms, etc) to recycle plastic but each item is an artisan-level product.
I’m using a sandwich press to make small thin flat sheets but a few hundred dollars makes a better quality sheet of around 30cm square and of more uniform quality. Such flat materials can be cut and shaped like wood and made into V/U/BOs.
Once I have these thin (3mm – 5mm) sheets I still have to square them up because no matter how you try, plastic will not flow in perfectly square straight lines. I’m straight away trimming of a percentage of material that has cost me time and energy to melt, and I’ll have to melt it again to add it to the next sheet.
Then I have to have a project in mind that needs sheet material. I can cut it apart into a dozen keytags, but there are limited products you can make with flat sheet material that doesn’t fold or bend without careful application of heat. I can drape the sheet over an A-frame and partially re-heat it to make a waterproof roof for that bird feeder, but that’s not the product, the bird feeder is.
Many recycle shops cut their sheets up according to patterns and make furniture from them, or manipulate the filament as it leaves the extruder to directly form baskets or similar. But it’s almost impossible to produce consistent baskets freehand, the furniture you make will need quite a lot of extra design pizzazz to look as good as even certain Swedish flat-pack furniture.
Probably Best Way To Go?
For versatility, the single best thing to get after the shredder is an injection molding setup that can use flakes directly. There’s a lot to learn about making pressure injection molds, and plastic temperatures, and injection pressures, volumes, and hold times. It’s daunting, it will let you make small items that you have to have several molds for if you want to achieve any kind of production, and the items will all come out uniform and shiny once you get everything down to a process.
The Precious Plastic Marketplace Bazar will let you buy CNC machined molds for a lot of common items, saving you one huge initial hurdle that can otherwise leave you floundering. But there are only so many molds, they’re still a very expensive item that *will* wear over time leading to flashing and marked surfaces and have to be replaced, and limiting the hub to just casting two kinds of pen clips and one kind of keyring carabiner isn’t making something, it’s making something everyone else is already making … You can only sell so many of those in your town and surrounding markets, and the Precious Plastic Marketplace Bazar is saturated with them too.
The second-most versatile thing is a continuous extruder. Provided you’re prepared to invest a LOT
What’s needed is a way to address local problems and local issues. Our lapwings (we call plovers) are losing their nesting areas to construction expansion. Also some people still feel the need to steal plover eggs for some reason. Once lapwings have laid eggs, a shelter place over them will serve to protect them from some predation, and hopefully shame the human predators into leaving the birds’ eggs alone. I’ve seen some shelters made from wood, but this is a perfect place for having a hybrid structure along with some signage to raise awareness.
These days every locale has some recycled plastic park benches and tables but they’re generally made elsewhere and are pretty generic. A local product made with recycled local waste plastic and for local conditions would be far better suited.
People wishing to erect fences would probably prefer to use recycled plastic fenceposts knowing that they’re practically immortal, taking tons of plastic out of the waste stream for decades, and saving the cutting-down of trees to make shorter-lived wooden posts.
Fishers (local and tourist) would probably welcome a basket fishing creel made with recycled plastic that would last them decades and also perhaps feature location name, or legal size scales and names for local fish. If you place bird nesting boxes out to save local species who are losing habitat, or bat houses near wetlands to control mosquitoes, the raincaps and roofs could easily be made from recycled plastic, and some informative placards made to be placed in the area alerting people to the fact that conservation efforts are taking place and to respect the local wildlife.
And all those things would require more than just plastics. You’d want someone capable of making molds and presses for signs, people who enjoy combining wood, metal, and recycled plastic to address such things.
I.e. this doesn’t have to be one huge workspace, items could move between garage workshops and community centres and local businesses that pledge to help out by performing one or more steps of the processes. Any money raised could cover Maker A’s use of sandpaper and respiratory masks for their help in producing possum houses in areas where tree felling has made them a nuisance to local homeowners.
The Fishermen’s Co-Op could use locally-made locally-branded food-safe baskets for placing on tables, and even sell them out of the store for profit. If a local authority finds an issue with beach erosion, perhaps a system of high-hardness blocks and posts can be designed to hold back the erosion. Such a system would be a thing that could be sold outside the local area for other places that have erosion problems, or (in the spirit of sharing and more widespread recycling of local plastics at other locales) just the plans and instructions made available for other hubs to make the same for their region.
There is already the Precious Plastic Marketplace Bazar to share such things, and once other PreshPlast hubs see these things, they’ll be able to also do these things wherever they are. But single-focus recycling hubs are limiting, which is why I’d like to launch the plastic recycling hub and then open them to also do artwork, conservation work, welfare work, public works, and so forth.
What’s Really Needed
You need a hub, but the hub needs satellites. You may have a central place where you collect plastic waste donations and sell some of those dinky carabiners (but custom molded, with the name of your hub on them, so you’ll have had to acquire the expertise to manufacture your custom mold) and showcase your other products and even sell them, but you can’t really process the plastic out back of the shop without some good public liability insurance in case of plastic fumes.
You need a place where the plastic is recycled and some made into those dinky carabiners, lots stored for the use of the other satellite workshops that convert some to park furniture or dinnerware (and yes, HDPE and PP are food safe) or whatever. You need places that only take 3mm thin sheets to use as rain ingress protection on the possum houses they make. You need, in effect, to create “markets” for those building materials, preferably including a satellite that can CNC mill new molds for you, or make a new extrusion press for a different cross-section lineal material like perhaps a new hollow section continuously-extruded square tubing.
And preferably, you want most of those satellites to be part of the whole group.