This project was driven by a personal dedication to building a path for a sustainable future with the support of Cooper Union Project Grants and AACE Lab Project Grants. I designed and built an in-house plastic recycling center for waste from 3D printers, benefitting all schools in the college and make Cooper stand out as a local recycling hub.
Context: The Cooper Union is a college of three schools dedicated to teaching students art, architecture, and engineering alongside the ethics of sustainable design.
With papermaking and a metal foundry in the art school, a strong community of students and faculty who compost, and a heightened awareness of plastic usage in the school of engineering, Cooper is uniquely suited to successfully transition to a zero-waste campus. According to GrowNYC, New York City only recycles about 17% of its total waste, and exporting plastic waste costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually. To continue the development of a strong culture of sustainability at Cooper, the next step is to build an in-house plastic recycling center.
The first step is to focus on the waste filament and failed prints from the 3D printers on campus. The 3D printers at the Makerspace consumed 1.5 kg of filament for prototyping alone in the Fall 2021. The AACE lab has 465 active users, including art, architecture, and engineering students, and printed over 110kg of PLA filament in 2022. An estimated 55kg of plastic (the weight of 80 basketballs), can be attributed to discarded prototypes. 3D printer modules, shredders, and extruders can convert scrap PLA to newly reusable filament or plastic sheets well suited for prototyping.
I wanted students to have different ways to interact with recycled materials. The team determined that the project would need materials to fund a sheet press, injection molder, and shredder inspired by the Precious Plastics Community. I secured a $7,500 grant from the Cooper Union Projects Grant and IDC Foundation to build:
Sheet Press System: Optimizing a t-shirt decal press along with custom welded molds for consistent sheet pressing
Injection Molding System: Using FormLabs Resin Printers to develop molds that allow for PLA pellet injection molding
Silicone Molding: Using silicone molds for PLA pouring methods
PET Extruder: Using plastic bottles to create filament for 3D printers
Shredder: Optimizing paper shredders for shredding PLA
By Spring 2023, I was able to solidify methods for sheet pressing PLA rounds using a T-shirt press. I explored many temperature and timing settings, literature on PLA, and Instron testing to determine the perfect concoction of parameters for glassy PLA sheets.
In addition to the sheet pressing method, curious students and students from the ReCoop project enrolled in an independent study with Douglas Thornhill on the material properties of Poly Lactic Acid (PLA) to better understand its life cycle in terms of polymerization and decomposition and address potential safety concerns for the recycling system.
Drone Landing Gear
Laser-cutting recycled PLA to build landing gear for VTOL drone
Using HTML, CSS, and design tools for out reach
Creating posters in Adobe Suite to grab student attention
The ReCoop Project was something I dreamt of during my work at the AACE Lab alongside two good friends, Brandon Bunt and Daniel Luo. My senior year at Cooper was dedicated to making the idea a reality. The AACE Lab projects grant, Prof. Douglass Thornhill, and many other curious students were invaluable help. The project continues to grow and is part of the Cooper Summer Stem outreach program which teaches high school students about the science and value of recycling.
While my last year at Cooper flew by, I made sure that the team could learn and understand the material science behind PLA recycling before sheet pressing, extruding, and injection molding to ensure a well-thought-out recycling process.
In future semesters, ReCoop can grow to offer additional recycling methods and polish methods for using the injection and silicone molding processes. The ReCoop project will continue to help the Cooper community in its zero-waste initiatives and provide materials for future projects.