A subtle observer at UCI’s Java City may notice a trash can reading “Renew 3D Print”, asking drinkers to throw away their coffee lids. But what is missing on the container is who the lids will go to: the members of the Specialists in Plastic Additive Manufacturing, a sustainability initiative consisting of nine students at UCI.
“When you put something in this recycling bin, it’s in this black box,” explained Aldrin. “But what actually happens is that only 10 to 15 percent of it is being recycled, because most waste management facilities can’t handle all of the different types of plastics. With our system, we want to remove that black box and show what happens behind the scenes.”
The milestone of expanding on campus reflects the current trend of the 3D printing industry. This year, the market is expected to grow 13.5 percent larger than the market from five years ago, but only nine percent of plastic was recycled during that time nationwide.
SPAM’s roots reach back to 2014, when William connected with a Solar Decathlon project leader and was introduced to the 3D printing and materials team.
“That team was tasked with making a kind of tool room of the future. Now what Alex didn’t tell me was that I was going to be only person on that team,” he chuckled, “after about a year. And so I became the leader of it.”As William’s roommate at the time, Aldrin was also introduced to the idea. Both were on board at the end of their sophomore year, but development did not kick into high gear until the 2015-2016 academic year.
That was when the two met Assistant Professor of Art Jesse Jackson, who provided the space for them to test their ideas. In return, they would become the managers of that space, the Speculative Prototyping Lab.
Since then, the co-founders and other members – Andrew Hnat, Sharon To, Christian Datu, Ivette Morales, Tucker Moody, Ian Pareja, and Derek de Los Angeles – have gathered during the evenings to experiment and develop their product. The daily grind each of the members experience is heavily informed by a passion to create a more sustainable industry.
“I was a volunteer at the Aquarium of the Pacific, did a lot of volunteering at the aquarium, feeding the animals, doing a lot of outreach, and also beach cleanups,” reflected Aldrin. “It’s one of the things you grow up with, it’s my love for the ocean. Once you find what you’re passionate about, you give it all your time, really. It’s day in and out. Will and I sometimes dream about the work we have to do, and think, ‘argh, we should be doing more things.’ It’s just this constant collaboration of surrounding yourself with people.”
Professor Jackson’s lab also serves as a place to develop the team. SPAM takes time during the week to update members on individual progress on the project and partnerships like the Green Initiative Fund, StrawFree, the ANTrepreneur Center, and UROP.
But these relationships between organizations and students are not just dependent on a passion to make sustainable alternatives; entrepreneurial planning and organization play a key role as well.
“How you have a measurable impact on an industry is what we’ve learned a lot from the people at the ANTrepreneur Center, we’ve learned a lot from other people who work in the entrepreneurial world. We have to make [recyclable filament] a product that people desire more than traditional plastics,” shared William.
“We’ve been learning a lot about how social entrepreneurship, using a business model to not only to start a business but also to organize the way you do a project. So even if our project is not there to make a buck, using that model of making a dollar off of something is essential in making your system run efficiently.”
For instance, through networking and developing connections, the team has learned how to appeal to a wide demographic. This requires not only providing a sustainable product that attracts environmentally conscious consumers, but also one that is just as effective and even more inexpensive than the non-recyclable alternative. A superior filament engages investors, consumers, and others who consider only the bottom line.
“And that’s what our lab is about. It’s about taking these scalable ideas and doing them.”
The consequential mentality has led to multiple achievements in a matter of weeks. After two years of experimentation, connections, and dedication, on March 10, the sustainability initiative announced that it has finally created a spool of filament entirely from recycled plastic. Recycled cups were turned into filament and tested successfully on March 16. The day after, the SPAM seniors represented the whole team at the Winter Design Review for Senior Projects, receiving the Dean’s Award.
Landmarks the team has made have not come without their difficulties. Such an example is attempting to meet the current goal of networking all the 3D printers on campus.
“There’s a lot of people who buy a 3D printer without there being a big public record of it,” William said. “So, what we’re trying to do is figure out how has these 3D printers, how much 3D printing goes on on campus and how can we make sure that all of it is sustainable.
“We know that there’s at least 60 printers on campus,” Aldrin chimed in.
“And that’s a low number. As far as our high number, we can estimate over 100,” William concluded.
SPAM also seeks to continue its mission after the co-founders’ final year of studying at UCI.
“With this initiative, we want to establish a sustainable infrastructure for students and graduates to be a part of the system,” Aldrin said. By establishing an ambassador program and supporting other environmentally conscious student groups, “our hope is to bring that system across all universities and colleges around the country, and even the world.”
“We have the space and utilities, but we need some more support and funding in order to keep the lights on,” William stated.
And independent initiatives are already taking shape. Students at UC Berkeley are developing a nearly identical system of turning 3D plastic filament waste into reusable product.
“So the key now is that, no matter the fact that they’ve thought of it, we’ll continue to make sure that our system works on campus. Because it doesn’t matter if you think of it. It matters that we’ve got to make sure that all of UCI printers are sustainable. That’s the measurable impact. That’s when there’s a measurable impact on the university, instead of saying that this can be done,” William asserted.
In fact, despite more competitors entering the niche industry, SPAM members became encouraged. Affirmed Aldrin, “it’s more proof of what we’re doing is something that should be done.”
Follow Specialists in Plastic Additive Manufacturing on its website for more updates.