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3D Printing – appropriate technology from eWaste

Here in Europe, there are many restrictions and directives dealing with the responsible disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment – go to any local  recycling centre and you will find the neatly ordered ranks  of battered fridges, TV’s and obsolete computers awaiting  their  final demobilization – destined to become shiny new products – officialy at least!

A few years ago we  encountered a West African businessman who used to visit a neighbouring warehouse to purchase batches of scrap photocopiers and derelict ex-rental computer  equipment for ” recycling” in Africa. Palletloads were squeezed onto an elderly articulated truck – its canvas covers already bulging over a couple of insurance salvage Mercedes – themselves stuffed full with odds and ends – all strapped precariously to the trailer; The  whole tottering shipment  was destined for export from the nearest port to Africa, where the whole lot was to be sold off to the highest bidder  –  truck and all.  The businessman would then hop back on a plane and repeat the process over again!

Back in 2012 , an Australian documentary film-maker we knew – David Fedele –  travelled to Accra in Ghana to investigate the problem of eWaste – what happens to those broken and obsolete electrical and  electronic products once they have been replaced by the latest   new  gadgets.   The result was the acclaimed documentary eWasteland which lifted the lid on what is now a  significant problem worldwide.

Filmed at the infamous Agbogbloshie dump in Accra, the 20 minute film makes apocalyptic and grim viewing .

There is no commentary. It doesn’t need one.  it shows graphically what currently happens to all that technology -those machines that were crafted with  time,  care and energy -now unwanted,  literally smashed and  torn apart by hand under the most primitive conditions – often by children – the shattered remains  being burned to salvage the metals.

The  people who spend their working day at the dump do  so to gain some sort of income ,  but at a very high cost .  Apart from the more obvious physical hazards,  many harmful chemicals are being released with potential long-term consequences for the worker’s health and also for the climate and the environment in general. But these problems are of little concern when faced with few other options to make a living.

With a global trade in scrap , cheap labour and lax regulation , it is a scene repeated in many developing countries across the world most especially in Africa.

So where does 3D Printing Technologies come into all this?  The technology to create items with computer controlled CNC machines and CAD/CAM software has been around for many years and is well established amongst large manufacturers. But no  longer is the technology the sole domain of those  blue chip aerospace or engineering companies with the ability to spend millions on their machinery and software licenses. What has changed in recent years is the advent of good quality, reliable  open source software and just as important- open source hardware – in particular the phenomenon of 3D printers.

Spurred on by the ever-expanding open source and “maker”  communities – it is now possible to get an inexpensive but fully functional open source 3D printer – such as  a Rep-Rap/Prusa or similar – up and running for a few hundred pounds with DIY kits easily available from online sources such as eBay, opening a new era in creativity and low volume manufacturing of custom designs .   CAD software, previously costing many thousands to license a single user and requiring expensive hardware to run can now often be obtained as freeware, running on common PC/Linux powered hardware.

Sounds great, you say, but how does that help the impoverished people grubbing a living from the eWaste dumps of Africa – who have little or no money to spare to buy even the cheapest offering – let alone the time or expertise to build one?  And if they had, what possible use would one be?

Several initiatives have arisen recently to address such problems, with the aim of improving people’s lives – alleviating poverty and helping create positive social change – several local social enterprise initiatives, for example WoeLab in Togo, Buni Hub  maker space in Tanzania, assisted by charities such as TechForTrade,  Jerry DIT  and others are creating a new economy based around 3D printing and open source technologies.

Especially interesting are the designs of printers and other equipment being made from eWaste itself – with scrap photocopiers, printers and the like donating useable parts – and the plastic material for the printer filaments coming from recycling the plastic bottles picked from local waste dumps – creating a product many times more valuable than the waste plastic bottles  – resulting  in new, better paid work for collectors and processors of the plastic, as well as in building, selling and using the printers themselves – 3D printers are already being used to create a diverse range of products from medical prosthetics to  shoes! All making far better use of the eWaste no one else wants.

The scale of the problem is , of course, vast but it’s a positive start! As with mobile phone technology, which in the space of a few years, has rapidly taken the internet and comminications direct to  previously isolated and  impoverished communities, 3D printers made from eWaste and recycled materials are creating new opportunities for people in ways that just a short few years ago would have been unimaginable .