3D printed whistles

Thinking about the environment

  • Informal learning
  • Geography

The learning curve associated with 3D printing can produce a lot of 3D printed waste. It's time to start exploring and thinking about more sustainable options.

I generally sort my recycling, break down my cardboard boxes, and once a year send a box of failed prints and small pieces of PLA to filabot for recycling, but it wasn’t until visiting Hong Kong last fall and seeing so many people in so little space that the necessity of recycling became an imperative instead of just a nice habit.

While I strongly believe in the design process and I know that 3D printing is more sustainable than sending prototypes back and forth between designer and manufacturer, there can be waste created, not through the process of iteration, but when 3D printer users are less careful when designing or setting up a print. What can I tell teachers who live on an island alongside millions of people that they might be creating plastic pieces that will end up in the waste bin during the learning experience? As a matter of fact, while I don't have a hard time advocating for iteration, I do have issues with not sharing with students common pitfalls that could be avoided. There must be some way to participate in the design process while letting students learn first hand what they shouldn't do, and still be environmentally responsible. One way to deal with the issue is up-cycling. The Digital Harbor Foundation in Baltimore gives unwanted prints a new life by using them as material for new sculptures:

Repurposed prints
Repurposed prints-1

Up-cycling is great, but it may not be for everyone. What I realized, is that the time had finally come for me to explore alternatives to the standard PLA filaments I've been using up until now.

Ultimaker produces wonderful filaments — PLAPVAABSTPU 95ANylon and CPE — and Ultimaker has optimized the settings in Cura for Ultimaker materials. But one of the best features about an Ultimaker 3D printer is its open filament system. Since you can adjust such 3D printing settings as the nozzle temperature and diameter, the build plate temperature, material retraction, fan speed, and more, you can use a huge variety of filaments. It is the Ultimaker 2+ ability to use different filaments that encouraged me to explore the filaments from companies that are thinking about the environmental impact of 3D printing.

When visiting the West Island School in Hong Kong, Dave Hopley, the Head of Post 16 Design Technology and an advocate of sustainability, shared a few resources with me on the Circular Economy . A Circular Economy is an idea of making optimum use of resources in order to avoid waste. Dave also directed my attention to Reflow, a company from the Netherlands working on creating filament out of collected PET bottles. Inspired by his enthusiasm, I continued researching on my own and found Dave Hakkens’ Precious Plastic projectRefil which makes ABS filament from car dashboards and PET filament from old PET bottles, Bioinspiration’s WillowFlex from Germany, a compostable flexible filament, 3D Printlife's Enviro™ ABS, ALGIX’s 3D ALGA™ filament made from nuisance algae, or algae blooms, and 3D Fuel’s collection of recycled and sustainable products: Wound Up™ – filament derived from coffee waste byproducts, Buzzed — a filament made of byproducts from the beer making process, and Entwined — filament made with USA-grown and processed industrial hemp.

While still in Hong Kong, I ordered spools of ALGIX 3D ALGA™ and the series of filaments from 3D Fuel so that they would be waiting for me when I returned to New York. I also ordered a spool of WillowFlex, as they do not have a US distributor. Mind you, it was not lost on me how any gains made through production or the recycling of WillowFlex would soon be negated by the impact of shipping the filament from Europe to the US, but I was curious about the material. I also wrote to Refil to find out if their recycled PET filaments which can be shipped throughout Europe, could be obtained in the states. Unfortunately, I never received an answer from them. I also ordered a spool of 3D Printlife's Enviro ABS which the website claims has been specially formulated to be consumed by bacteria once it enters a landfill.

To experiment with the different plastics I selected two types of models: a delicate model and solid one that was meant to hold water for a brief period of time. The idea was to put each filament to the test and compare the results. For the delicate print I selected Jon Hodgins’s derivative of Misha Tikh’s Nautilus Gears. For the solid model I chose one of Adam Stager’s Chirping Bird Whistle.

I started with ALGIX’s Primordial Red 3D ALGA. The website recommended printing with a temperature between 175-190 °C. Unfortunately, I was not able to print on the Ultimaker 2+ with a 0.4 mm nozzle using the temperatures on the lower or higher end of the spectrum. It was not until I raised the temperature to 210 °C, that I was able to print both models, but both suffered from stringiness, indicating that the temperature was indeed too high. When I lowered the temperature to 205 °C, I was not able to print at all with the Primordial Red. In addition to not being able to print, my nozzle became clogged.

ALGIX Primordial Red Gears
ALGIX Primordial red gears

I had more luck with ALGIX’s Agave Blue 3D ALGA. The Ultimaker 2+ produced beautiful objects when I printed with a nozzle temperature of 205 °C and a build plate temperature of 50 °C.

The ALGA™ filament is made from nuisance algae, thus helping keep ecology in balance through remediation. The remainder of the filament is made from PLA, a nontoxic resin made of lactic acid derived from plant sugars. I found the finish is a bit rough, but that adds a natural quality to the final product. Most remarkable about the printing process is the smell. The ALGIX filament has a very distinctive odor when heated:

Algix Agave Blue Nautilus Gears
ALGIX agave blue nautilus gears
Algix Agave Blue Bird Whistle
ALGIX agave blue bird whistle

Wound Up™, Buzzed, and Entwined, 3D Fuel’s filaments made from waste products and industrial hemp, all printed well. I printed Wound Up™ and Entwined at a nozzle temperature of 210 °C and set the bed at 60 °C. For Buzzed, I set the nozzle to 205 °C and the bed at 45 °C. Each of these filaments produced an interesting surface, where you're able to see the materials that have been mixed in with the PLA.

Wound Up™ is made using waste byproducts from coffee and produces a filament with a rich brown color and a noticeable natural grain. A little bit of stringiness was detected, but this could be easily removed:

Wound Up Gears
Wound Up gears
wound up whistle2
Wound Up whistle

Buzzed is made with waste byproducts from the beer making process. This filament has a rich golden color, and while I noticed a bit of stringiness, it was also easily removed:

buzzed gear
Buzzed gears
buzzed whistle2
Buzzed whistle

Entwined is produced from USA-grown and processed industrial hemp, which requires no herbicides or pesticides, and grows more densely than corn. No dyes are used when producing this filament, and the natural brown seems to have an iridescent quality to it:

Entwined Gears
Entwined gears
Entwined whistle
Entwined whistle

While I haven't printed with ABS in some time, I was willing to experience the less pleasant smell in order to try out 3D Printlife's Enviro ABS. I selected the Pantone Cool Gray 7C and used Ultimaker's default ABS settings. The Nautilus gears printed beautifully, and I was mostly successful with the whistle—it holds water and makes a lovely sound, but the mouthpiece was not as rounded as it should have been.

3D Printlife's Nautilus Gears
3D Printlife's nautilus gears
3D Printlife's whistle
3D Printlife's whistle

The filament I was most excited about using because it was actually compostable proved the most difficult to work with, I initially had no luck with the WillowFlex on the Ultimaker 2+ even after adhering to their recommendations for Bowden-extruders on their website:

Cheat sheet:

  • Maximum Active Cooling above 2nd layer

  • Retract at 100 mm/s

  • Retract to the filament outside of the suspension area + 2 mm

  • Soft pressure between the feed and the back-pressure gears

  • Consistent print speed (inner/outer/cover/infill)

  • Print speed between 30 – 50 mm/s

  • Minimum of 10s per layer print-time

  • Basic advice: Get a good active cooling system for your printer and cool as much as possible beginning with the second layer.

  • Everything stands and falls with the retraction: retract deeply and quickly to prevent oozing. A retraction rate of 100 mm/s should work.

  • You will also need find the maximum retraction distance: retract until the suspension of the Filament is hidden in the hose, and then and 2 mm further. We tested on the NBEO printer and the depth was 6.8 mm.

  • Don’t squeeze the filament!cWillowFlex offers a very good grip on the feed wheel. So you can adjust the pressure of the gears to be very gentle.

  • Print with constant speed (inner/ outer cover & infill). We got the best results with 30 – 50mm/s.

  • We recommend a minimum print time of 10 seconds per layer.

Still in doubt, I consulted Ultimaker's Forum. Ultimaker Community member Neotko had successfully used WillowFlex on his Ultimaker by adding a bondtech feeder printing with 1.75mm filament. Another community member, antonverburg, created a feeder modification that can be found on YouMagine that allows one to print with other flexible materials. For more information about printing with flexible filaments I consulted Tips For Best Results with Flexible Filaments. I also spoke with Steffen Rosenlechner, a graduate student studying sustainable management and a Bioinspiration part-time employee. During our conversation, he told me that a non-flexible WillowFlex was part of the company’s future plans. But in the meantime, I was still determined.

One solution I came up with was changing my Bowden tube to a PTFE Bowden tube, slowing print time to 50 mm/s, setting the nozzle temperature to 200 °C and the bed to 40 °C. My results were decent, but I still felt I could do better:

Willowflex Nautilus Gears
WillowFlex nautilus gears
WillowFlex whistle
WillowFlex whistle

Determined to get the best results possible, I ordered a Flex3Drive extruder and a replacement stepper motor, the Nema 17 Bipolar Stepper 2.8V 1.68A 36Ncm(51oz.in) 17HS15-1684S. When installed I will write about the results.

All the bird whistles I printed could hold water, at least long enough to use the whistles. I left all of the whistles overnight with water. The 3D Fuels prints all leaked, but the WillowFex, 3D Printlife, and ALGIX Blue Agave whistles continued to hold water over time.

3D printed whistles
3D printed whistles

Desktop 3D printing is a relatively new field, so it is not surprising that there are currently not more products available that address sustainability. But the companies that produce the filaments I tested are thinking about the issues. Whether they are thinking about production, or thinking about the life cycle of plastic, they are helping to start the conversation.

It is my hope that as more consumers demand responsibly produced products that are sustainable, companies will have to comply. In the meantime, if you would like to become part of a 3D printing sustainability study group, click on the button below:

Join the sustainability study group

Read more education blogs

  • Naturalis Biodiversity Center: Prehistoric prints, cutting-edge technology

    Naturalis Biodiversity Center: Prehistoric prints, cutting-edge technology

    Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the Netherlands’ national natural history museum, is using 3D printing to create both partial and full dinosaur skeletons for public display.

    College of the Desert 3D printing club

    Feel the Action: Learn about how a college is changing lives in ways we can touch!

    A 3D printing club emerges at College of the Dessert to help make ideas accessible to all students

    Testing Quadcopter

    How the tools we use influence the designs we make

    Michael Delaney writes about his iterative process of integrating electronics and 3D printing in his programmable quadcopter project.

  • Ultimaker Met

    Bringing 3D printing to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Part of the mission from Ultimaker North America's Community team is to help educators get up and running with 3D printing and to help them find meaningful ways to integrate the technology into their curriculum while celebrating their successes. When we w

    Smithsonian Learning Lab

    3D printing as part of the Smithsonian Learning Lab

    Pioneer Christopher Sweeney shares the work he did with 3D printing and the Smithsonian Learning Lab to create collections of educational resources, organized and structured for teaching and learning.

    Harvard calculus courses use 3D printed models to engage students

    Harvard calculus courses use 3D printed models to engage students

    What is the best way to teach concepts like surface area and volume relating to mathematical objects in a three-dimensional world? The curricular design team at Harvard University thinks the...

  • Mathematica Tea Light Holder

    3D Design in Mathematica: Tea Light Holders

    If it’s happening in Ultimaker’s world, you can find out about it here. 3D printing stories about inspiring moments, original 3D printed projects and much much more.

    Code your 3D designs with Tinkercad’s new Codeblocks app

    Code your 3D designs with Tinkercad’s new Codeblocks app

    Tinkercad released Codeblocks last June, and now that it's out of Beta, Pioneer Rob Morrill tells us how he uses it.


    Modifying an STL with Tinkercad

    When Ultimaker Pioneer Alex Larson contacted me about the Ultibot-D project, I was super excited. As a teacher and parent, I am a huge cheerleader for risk. I printed the base models at ⅕ scale and gave it to my students to explore

  • Ultimaker at Camp

    Math Camp: Having fun doing stuff

    Pioneer Dr Toni Szymanski writes about summer fun at camp with 4th and 5th graders, math, and 3D printing.

    3D printing for glass


    Guest blogger Astrida Valigorsky writes about combining the old and the new at Timothy Belliveau's GlitchCraft class where students combined 3D printing and glass blowing.


    Using Basecamp to manage your classroom/makerspace projects and print queue

    Pioneer Andrew Woodbridge uses Basecamp to organize his students' projects, and he explains how you can too.

  • 3D printing in math and chemistry

    A unique 3D printing collaboration between mathematics and chemistry faculty

    Passing it on. After integrating 3D printing into her own math courses, Kristen Schreck helps spread 3D printing across disciplines at Saint Xavier University.

    World monument project

    Living world monuments assignment

    Pioneer Joanne Barrett shares about a middle school project that combines 3D printing, Augmented Reality, History, and Art.

    parts in cura (1)

    My reintroduction to Netfabb

    A recent NetFabb workshop convinced the writer that they can't live without this application. See why it's time to take another look at Netfabb.

  • hero wrenchs

    Wrench Engineering

    Inspired by NASA printed in space wrench, Pioneer Rob Morrill gave his fifth graders a design challenge to design their own real-world tool.

    goblet project

    Integrating 3D printing and The Goblet Project

    Pioneer Chris Hanusa shares one way he integrated 3D printing into his Integral Calculus class

    Finland’s mobile libraries

    3D printers in the public library: Finland ahead of the curve

    US Professor Joshua Pearce, sponsored by Fulbright Finland for Research, shares his first impressions of Finnish libraries.

  • Happiness

    Lessons in letting go - releasing student energy speeds creation and use of our art and innovation lab

    Pioneer John Nordell enlisted his students to put the Art and Innovation Lab together. The result was one of the best experiences he has had as an educator.

    toni teaching fusion

    Teacher training for 3D printing

    Pioneer Dr. Toni Szymanski thought that 3D printing could engage students in math classes. To test this out, she had to learn all about 3D printing first.

    ceramic stamps

    Digital fabrication informs ceramics decorative process

    Pioneer Young Kim blends his classical arts background with digital fabrication to create a ceramic project that incorporates 3D printing.

  • buckeyball

    Modeling rocks at iCREATE

    iCREATE's Tiffany Huang shared an iCREATE success story about Jackie Zheng.

    Empathy map

    Elementary-College Engineering Design partnership

    Pioneer Matthew Wigdahl writes about how his fifth graders and local undergraduate engineering students learn from each other.


    Introducing Ultimaker’s Core Lessons Set for STEAM Educators

    Designed by the Ultimaker North America Community Team, our new Core Lessons: STEAM Set is a resource for educators who need inspiration and ideas when they bring 3D printing into their classrooms.

  • MakerGirl

    Empower one MakerGirl, empower the world

    how the group traveled 10,000 miles around the country to help bring 3D printing workshops to over 1,000 young girls. In this week's post we catch up with the organization that is still working to create a new generation of confident, creative women leade

    Georgia Connections Academy

    Building a mobile maker space: part 2—up and rolling

    So what exactly does a Mobile MakerSpace look like? That's the question I had to ask myself once I began the project of bringing 3D printing technology to virtual students. When we started this project, we knew we needed something that would be easy to

    Building a mobile makerspace: part 1— getting started

    Building a mobile makerspace: part 1— getting started

    Pioneer Wendy Aracich is putting together and implementing a mobile MakerSpace for her virtual school of 4000 students spread across the state of Georgia.

  • LibraryLyna

    Tactile Problem/Solution Bank Community Project

    3D modeling and printing should be accessible of every educator so that they may offer their students tactile means to understand spatial concepts.

    Design Engine Box

    Design Engine community project

    We want to challenge educators and students to help evolve the Design Engine game. We want to see how you're using or modifying the game with your students, and we want to incorporate your ideas into the next edition.

    coca cola upcycle

    Upcycling community project

    Upcycling challenges students and educators to use their creativity and 3D printing skills to breathe new life into a few familiar objects.

  • pecha-kuchas

    Construct3D to Kamehameha Ed Tech Conference

    Last year Pioneer Greg Kent traveled from Hawaii to North Carolina to attend Construct3D 2017. We thought we'd share his reflections with you now since we recently announced Construct3D 2018

    Plastic Ocean by Kevin Krejci

    Ocean Plastic Community Project

    The Ultimaker Community Team will be launching a series of interdisciplinary projects over the next few months that challenge students to research, explore, design, and 3D print. Ocean Plastic is the first project of this series.


    3D printed fractals at JMU 3SPACE

    Pioneer Professor Laura Taalman, (a.k.a. mathgrrl), reviews a multi-week study of fractals by general education math students in the JMU 3D printing classroom.

  • Drone1

    Using drones and 3D printing to develop design thinking during a summer robotics camp

    Pioneer Yuriy Drubinskiy writes about his experience leading a summer program and how creating drones with 3D printing brings form, structure, and design together.

    The Starter Pack launch event at Digital Harbor Foundation

    Introducing the Ultimaker Design Engine Starter Pack

    Presenting the Ultimaker Design Engine Starter Pack: a game created to provoke, inspire, and entertain students, educators, 3D designers, artists, and engineers of all experience levels!

    first puzzle cube and package to be made on a 3D printer entirely out of PLA

    Davidson Desktop Doohickeys: Puzzle cubes

    Pioneer Adam Davidson writes about a project in his curriculum that is a rite of passage for his high school's engineering program students. He explains at how it started and what caused it to change