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3D Printed Polymers Recycling Process: Making Additive Manufacturing More Sustainable


It is now widely established that plastic is a significant concern when it comes to minimizing the negative impact of human activities on our planet. 3D printing is often associated with plastic and its negative impact on the environment.

However, plastic 3D printing offers several advantages over other plastic manufacturing processes. One of the primary benefits of additive manufacturing is its ability to provide greater control over the amount of material used, which can help to overcome storage and overproduction issues commonly associated with traditional manufacturing methods. By using only the necessary amount of material, 3D printing can help reduce waste and promote a more sustainable approach to production. Therefore, while plastic 3D printing does present some environmental challenges, it also provides us with opportunities to mitigate those issues and promote more responsible manufacturing practices.

It is also interesting to note that, due to 3D Printing’s technical specificities, it is possible to seamlessly create complex and hollowed shapes that other traditional manufacturing methods would not be able to produce, reducing the need for tooling and lengthy, strenuous processes.

On top of that, with advances in bioplastic engineering, it is also possible to use materials that are more sustainable, like biosourced Nylon PA11, made from Castor Oil, or Polylactic Acid, a biodegradable bioplastic made from corn starch.

However, considering the fact that 3D Printing is a thriving and innovative industry that is sure to keep flourishing in the years to come, it is important that we keep looking for solutions, and pursue our efforts to make 3D Printing more sustainable.

That is why, at Sculpteo, we decided to launch something special!

We will now make it possible to recycle our customer’s discarded or obsolete Nylon PA11 & Nylon PA12 parts

So, what exactly is going to happen ?

The Virtucycle® Initiative

Although we strive to produce durable objects with excellent mechanical properties, these objects might need to be replaced when they reach the end of their usable life, in which case, it is fundamental to consider their potential environmental impact and explore sustainable recycling options.

To ensure that our commitment to sustainability continues even after our products have reached the end of their usable life, we are partnering with long-standing collaborators Arkema’s Agiplast to enter the Virtucycle® Initiative, allowing us to transform discarded 3D parts into new materials for manufacturing purposes.

Virtucycle Arkema
Arkema’s Virtucycle® concept

This process is thought of as a loop, a virtuous cycle, that enables manufacturers, consumers and businesses to take part in a more circular economy, allowing for materials and objects to be reused and recycled.

“ Today’s tubing, clothing, sunglasses and running shoes become tomorrow’s ski boots, luggage, helmets, and storage tanks. “

ARKEMA’s “Virtucycle®” Campaign

This model consists of three simple steps ; Reegineering, Recompounding & Recertification, that will allow our recycled Nylon PA11 & Nylon PA12 parts to be processed into a variety of newly conceived materials, tailored to the technical requirements of the manufacturers that will use them to produce new items.

The Recycling Process

The process will be pretty straightforward: if you are already one of our customers and want to join the movement, all you have to do is to send us your parts, including the “authorization of destruction” with your approval and signature. And, since we know how important industrial secret and confidentiality are, we will be ensuring that the only way your parts leave our factory is when they have been crushed to bits.

Here are the steps that your parts will be going through, once we’ve received them:

1. Collection & Sorting

The first step in the recycling process is to collect and sort the 3D printed parts depending on the material they’re made of, Nylon PA11 or Nylon PA12. The parts will be placed in octabins. One octabin can contain a couple hundred KG of parts. In order to optimize transportation, we will send Arkema’s Agiplast several of these full octabines along with our own batches of printing powder to be recycled.

2. Grinding

Once the nylon waste has been sorted, it is then ground into small pieces. To ensure the preservation of industrial secret and our clients’s confidentiality, the grounding will take place solely inside our Sculpteo manufacturing plant.

3. Compounding & Extrusion

This is where the magic happens: the moment when the real transformation of the recycled materials takes place. Once the ground nylon is received by our recycling partner Arkema, it goes through a compounding process where a new material will be developped. Recycled high-performance plastics require careful processing in order to preserve their original qualities, so the recompounding process is crucial in achieving another high-performance material. The compound can be customized to meet specific requirements for strength, flexibility, and color.

As the materials are compounded, they are also melted and homogenized through an extrusion process. The melted material is pushed through a die to create a consistent and uniform shape, which can later be used to form pellets. This process not only ensures the quality and consistency of the material but also removes any potential contaminants that may have been present in the original material.

5. Pelletization

The extruded nylon is then cooled and cut into small pellets. These pellets are the final state of the new material that can now be used to manufacture new items.

6. Injection molding and the creation of new items

The final step in the process is to use the recycled nylon pellets to create new products. In the case of injection molding, the pellets will be melted and injected into a mold to create a new plastic product, such as sunglasses, a helmet, or a suitcase.

Benefits of Nylon Recycling

The most important benefit of Nylon Recycling is, of course, the minimization of environmental impact, helping to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or incineration. Additionally, recycling nylon is a cost-effective way for manufacturers to obtain high-quality nylon material, while also reducing their carbon footprint. The consumer will also benefit from a partially recycled end-product, that can be both competitive and highly performant. This way, both the manufacturers and consumers can contribute to reducing the environmental impact of their buying strategy.

RE-cycleo logo

Why is Sculpteo launching this Recycling Program?

As outlined in this article, the recycling process for Nylon PA11 and PA12 is a relatively straightforward procedure that can be completed in just a few steps: collection and sorting, grinding, compounding and extrusion, pelletization, and finally, injection molding.

While this process may seem simple, it is essential for manufacturers to have a dedicated recycling process, in order to ensure the proper handling of recycled materials, for both environmental and economic reasons.

This not only promotes sustainability but also helps to maintain the quality and consistency of the recycled material, and, ultimately, the quality and durability of the new products made from these recycled materials.

As the world is evolving towards a better understanding of the need to preserve the environment and its ecosystems, it’s a requirement for industries, such as 3D Printing, to lead the way towards more sustainable products.

Discover our RE-cycleo program here.

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