About Plastics Use in Lighted Objects

There is a very real concern that plastics are harming our environments. To some, this means that anything made from the stuff is to be avoided as dangerous. Which is unfortunate. As it is with any raw material, there are pros and cons to be considered – so objectivity is key to understanding.

Since a great deal of what I make uses 3D printed plastic, I am sensitive to how potential customers perceive it. I am also aware of the role plastics play in improving our lives, as well as the damage being done by abuse of the material.

The following is a brief of how I see plastics use as it relates to what I am directly involved in – founded on 12 years of development.

The Issue of Big Waste

The greatest issue we face is the explosion of waste generated in everyday living. We casually throw away millions of tons of plastic, paper, wood, construction debris, vehicle maintenance fluids, electronics, rubber, and food. We discard most of what we buy in a very short time after purchase. Modern living has become a river of waste. A plastic cup, straw and sandwich container has a life measured in minutes. We buy plastic gifts, novelties, and trinketry – then toss them with little regard.

In the midst of a waste crisis, we continue to push more market segments into it. The latest craze for fast fashion, where clothing is pushed at the market, then made obsolete within months, now moves clothing into the realm of single use garbage.

Plastics Come in Many Forms

The plastics used in the vast majority of the products casually discarded after a single use, are PET, PPE, PPG, HPDE, PVC, and Polystyrene. These are the materials we see in imagery around the issue of plastic waste covering beaches and choking wildlife. These are consumer products designated for single use in the form of water bottles, and product packaging.

Single use plastics are flooding the planet is a serious issue, and indicator of a need to redress how we use materials.

The plastics we benefit us most are the rigid engineered plastics used to product lighter, stronger, safer, and more robust durable goods. There are hundreds of formulations and blends of plastics used in furniture, automotive, aviation, and appliance production that are not intended to move from shelf to garbage in a matter of hours.

The Herman Miller Aeron chair ustilizes engineered plastics in its frame and seating surfaces, to produce a superior product in both ergonomics and durability.

For some industries, like aviation and automotive, the use of plastics is essential to producing safer, and longer lasting products.

While some romantically imagine the past use of materials in automobiles (like metal dashboards and vinyl wrapped paper board door cards) as superior – in objective terms, plastics have created safer, more comfortable, lighter and more robust interiors and exterior trim-work than existed before. The environmental impact of a urethane bumper, for example, is far less than the chrome plated steel bumper before it. Padded dashboard surfaces properly shaped, save many lives over the steel painted dashboards of the past.

The fabrics in our furniture, and fibers in carpet, underlayment under wood or ceramic floors, and the moisture barrier wrapping under the siding of our homes, are now plastics based – producing superior end results in energy conservation and longer service life.

While the use of plastic is an easy material to manipulate into abusive planned obsolescence cycles that cause consumers to discard durable products long before the item’s service life has been reached, the general use of plastics in durable goods is not the core issue.

I do not Make Objects to be Treated as Waste

I do not create lighted art objects to be used for a short time and discarded as trash. My art is not single use, it is a durable good, for long term use. I would hope that the objects will be used for decades before requiring any servicing at all. My previously sold objects remain on display, some for more than 30 years. The material they are made of is irrelevant at this point.

In anything I create, the main bodies are made to stand up to use for as long as the object is valued. I offer to rebuild or repair anything that fails to operate, as the materials I use can be repaired. Should a product reach a point where it is no longer of value, I will take it back and repurpose it for anyone who will send it back to me – or break it down and recycle it properly.

Materials Used and Work in Process Waste

The plastic materials I use to make Lighted Objects are durable plastics, that are intended to serve for decades with minimal degradation in use. These include ABS, ABS/PC and ASA. These materials are the same used in kids toys like Lego blocks, furniture, and automotive applications. When used as intended, they are non-toxic to users, tough enough to tolerate abuse, and resistant to breakdown that would cause a product life to be shortened. My go-to material is ASA, as it is UV resistant, prints at a lower temperature (saves energy), and is generally a nice material to work with.

ASA. like ABS is classified as a “7” material, meaning that is not commonly recycled in the general waste stream. However, specialist recyclers now buy the material for recycling – so that is the proper path of managing products at end of life.

Additive Manufacturing Generates Very Little Scrap and Waste.

The process of 3D Printing is additive, meaning that there is very little waste generated from the material source to the finished part. In AM processing, the only plastic used to make the part, is for the part itself. There is not trimmed off waste. In creation of Lighted Art Objects, there a small quantity of water soluble, non hazardous support material used during the print process – which I minimize through part design. Unlike injection molding, fabrication, or machining – which can generate more waste than finished part – 3D Printing optimizes materials use, meaning the least amount of plastic necessary is used to produce the finished part.

In-house waste use is another effort I make. I solubilize much of the material left over at the end of material spools, for use as a filler and adhesive layer during assembly of finished objects. This not only reduces waste, it creates stronger end products. Some waste material is used as a filler with other resins, to make structural components more rigid. I also recycle the raw material carrier spools with the manufacturer.

While there are ‘organic’ plastics on market for 3D printing, such as PLA (milk based), the character of them is brittle, less stable over time, with less capacity to be bonded into larger structures, and do not accept fasteners readily. There is also ongoing debate on whether these materials behave as promised in the waste stream. At this time, these materials do not provide the qualities necessary to create durable end products intended to be in service for long periods of time, so are not suitable for the objects I make – at this time.

I am constantly looking for new materials to improve these conditions, and will use those suitable to the application when they become available. This means they must provide the same strength, longevity and recyclability as the materials I use now, with reduced potential for down-stream impact.

That said, since 3D Print processes use only the material necessary to print the part, and I use highly reliable commercial grade equipment that results in less than 5% of parts failing (and becoming scrap), and re-use what little excess material that is generated for use in joining and filling parts and surfaces, there truly is not approach that would reduce material use further.

Service and End of Life Policy

One of the main contributors of waste, are manufacturers who push product into the market that are intended to be short lived, or of unserviceable nature, with no participation in the implications of that behavior. The approach of “planned obsolescence” that forces consumption to replacement, vs. service and repurpose, is irresponsible.

I back every Object I make through support in service and end of life processing. Since Lighted Objects are Functional Art, there are instances where those used regularly will require repair, and others may reach a point they can no longer be returned to full original condition. Rather than see these items thrown out as trash, the following is what I offer as a more sustainable approach (from the Lumenique ‘Terms‘ page):

Repairs

Lumenique will repair and return to full operation any product it has made upon request. If the items is past its warranty period, a quote will be provided for the repair and instructions provided as to next steps. Please email us should you experience an issue you wish to be addressed, including product description, purchase date, serial number, and issue to be resolved. 

End of Product Life – Environmental Protection

If, for any reason, it is determined that the Lighted Object is no longer desired, serviceable, or beyond repair, please return it to Lumenique for post use processing. Every effort will be made to separate materials and components, and dispose of them properly. Plastic materials will be scrapped through proper recycling contractors, and electronics will be disposed of responsibly and legally. In many cases, an object may be re-used or re-purposed into a new Object to be sold. If this occurs, the individual returning the original object will be offered first right of refusal, or upon sale of the repurposed object, offered a discount on purchase price of an appropriate amount, for use in purchasing a new object available.

Every producer of any product should be held responsible for the waste generated when that product is no longer of use. I accept this responsibility. In this, the contribution to the waste stream, and any impact of the materials used, is a cooperative effort between the purchaser, holder of the item and me. 

I Use Plastics to Create Forms that Would Otherwise Not be Practical

I do not use plastics because of a love for the material. I use plastics and the process of making parts from the material, to produce an end product that would otherwise be impossible, or significantly more expensive and time consuming, or that would generate more waste. If I were to carve the Objects from metal or wood, the material discarded would exceed the material used. Not only would the raw costs would be higher – secondary finishing operations and building would be more complex. Lighted Objects require passages for wire, holders for supporting components, and access for service. In many cases, this cannot be accommodated in metal, wood, marble, plaster, or other material in practical terms. Rather than be restricted by the materials and processes involved in converting them to a finished Object, I chose 3D Printed plastic as a means to create with fewer physical limits, and minimal waste, at a cost that is rational in the price of the end product created – that will ultimately serve the purchasing patron for decades.

I employ wall thicknesses many times that of those low grade molded parts, utilize bonding methods that are impractical for mass production, and fill cavities where rigidity is paramount. The surface finish is the same as would be present on any other material.

Plastics Prejudice Understood

I realize that there are those who will see any Object made of plastic as inferior. If this is a significant issue, I offer that we can discuss creating a commissioned object using whatever material one desires, including wood, metals, glass, or concrete. In this, we can discuss what can be made within a desired budget. In time, I will be introducing Objects made with other materials, so do not object to their use.

There is a significant difference between a Lighted Art Object made from engineered 3D Printed plastics, and the cheap toys and single use plastic bottles and cups.

I am currently exploring other processes and materials, such as metal printing, UV cure fiberglass, concrete casting, and molding processes that do not generate excessive waste. However, to date, the waste generated, costs involved for part useability, has not proven to be practical. However, this won’t stop me from continuing to experiment and try new approaches.

In the meantime, the use of Additive Manufacturing using plastics is one of many materials and processes I employ in creating finished works.

Author: kwillmorth

I am an artist in lighted objects and product designer.

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