Development Lab

Printing plastics in Pune

Jessica Fujimori, Global MIT

When Sidhant Pai '14 was growing up in Pune, India, garbage was rarely on his mind. But that changed when Pai returned to his community the summer after his junior year at MIT.

Pai was working with MIT's Development Lab (D-Lab), doing some ground research in India. While he was there, his mother — a journalist who writes about social and environmental issues — introduced him to the waste picker community.

Waste pickers comb through trash, separating plastic from organic waste. For their efforts, they earn only 15 to 18 rupees (25 to 30 cents) per kilogram of waste. Though Pai had lived in the area his whole life and knew of the waste pickers, he had never seen them work. "When you go to the dump, you realize the conditions they work in are just atrocious," he says. "You also realize how important their work is; that's where all the waste management happens. If they weren't around, we wouldn't be recycling a lot of the stuff that we recycle."

Yet for all their labor, a waste picker would earn on average less than a dollar a day. The pickers are also often stigmatized for their work and their lower status. "They weren't being compensated fairly, either financially or socially," Pai says.

The problem, he realized, was that the material the waste pickers collected sold for little money. "Regardless of how many hours of work they put into collecting the plastic, at the end of the day, the plastic didn't have very high market value," Pai says. "There needed to be a way to add value to the plastic."

Luckily, Pai had the beginnings of a solution already — in his basement. "At that time, my dad was getting into 3D printing just as a hobby, and I was helping him build a 3D printer in our basement," he says.

One day, the two began discussing 3D printer filament — the plastic material. Wondering if filament made from recycled materials was available, Pai did some research online and quickly realized that there was not. "We wondered if that could be the way to add value to the plastic — by converting it to filament, and selling the filament," he says.

A few hundred dollars and a couple of months later, Pai had a rudimentary working prototype. Pai, his parents, and a fellow MIT student, Katie Spies '14, began working with a waste pickers collective called SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling; the acronym means "clean" in Hindi) to improve the technology and start using it to process plastic waste into 3D printing filament.

There was a long way to go, though. "We were just a fledgling with a barely working prototype," Pai says. Throughout their senior year at MIT, Pai and Spies worked to develop the technology further, garner funding, and create a business plan. With the support of the D-Lab Scale-Ups Program, a fellowship from the MIT Legatum Center, and the IDEAS Competition at MIT, as well as an Echoing Green fellowship, they soon launched Protoprint.

Now, the company is in its pilot phase, iterating and improving the technology — two machines they call FlakerBot and ReFilBot — to produce higher-quality filament. They set up "Filament Labs" near dumps and train waste pickers to use their machines to process waste plastic into filament. Protoprint then buys the filament for nearly 15 times more than what the pickers can get for unprocessed plastic.

As a civil and environmental engineering major at MIT, Pai solved plenty of problems. But, he says, this one is not just closer to his home, but also to his heart. "It's particularly satisfying to solve a problem for a community that is otherwise very enterprising and hardworking but just lacks access to the resources to get themselves out of poverty," Pai says. "That really does describe the waste picker community."