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Clean Currents: 3D-printed water bottles and more from ocean plastic

Clean Currents 3D-printed bottle on a beach SQ
Entrepreneur Adam Smith discloses big plans to turn plastic ocean debris into custom 3D-printed products starting with water bottles.

Nearly eight million tons of plastics are flowing into our oceans every year, according to the World Economic Forum (Geneva, Switzerland), which projects that by the year 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

That’s part of the reason why I founded Clean Currents Inc. (Washington, D.C.). After spending a year backpacking around the world, I noticed something disturbing: everywhere I went there was a common problem—plastic. Littering Greek Islands, stretching along Turkish coastlines, cluttering French cities.

Finally, when seeing crabs using plastic debris as shells, I thought, "If they can find a use for our trash, why can't we?" This question sparked my curiosity and after gathering together an amazing team, I believe we’ve developed a plan to solve the world's plastic problem for good.

Here’s our plan:

Create a proof of concept

Our first product, a reusable water bottle, acts as a proof of concept to demonstrate how ocean plastic can be 3D-printed into a great, consistent product. Before Clean Currents, turning ocean plastic into products has only been done as an experiment or as a gimmick. This phase of our plan is meant to prove that ocean plastic products really can work.

Grow our capabilities

With millions of tons of ocean plastic flowing into our oceans every year, we see the problem only having one solution: Demand.  Designing thousands of exclusive products made from ocean plastic is phase two; suitcases, glasses, furniture, statues, and a myriad of other products will be released continuously. Aided by dozens of professional designers, Clean Currents will create independent brands focused solely on each of these product categories all for the goal of processing as much ocean plastic as possible. Creating a production facility able to fulfill millions of orders a year and, more importantly, millions of pounds of plastic a year, is the fastest way to pay for the cleanup of the world's oceans.

Let others choose what to make

We think our products will be very popular, but we can only create so many. That's why our long-term goal is to start a 3D print-on-demand service. Customers can upload any model they want and it will be printed with ocean plastic and shipped to their door in a matter of days. In addition, Clean Currents will create specialty 3D printers that are seamlessly compatible with ocean plastic. Through a combination of our own products, print-on-demand service, and specialty 3D printers, we believe we can achieve what others thought impossible.

PLASTEC Minneapolis 2018 held June 12-14 October 31-November 1 is part of the Midwest’s largest advanced design and manufacturing event that also includes MinnPack brings you the latest in materials and additives, injection molding, rapid prototyping, coatings, automation, packaging and more. For details, visit PLASTEC Minneapolis.

Process overview

Currently, Clean Currents sources its ocean plastic from the rivers, coastline, and surrounding waters of Puerto Rico. Because we don't have enough demand to warrant shipping tons of plastic yet, we brought together a group of in-country volunteers and to help provide us with a steady stream of ocean plastic that matches our demand. While this model isn't sustainable and we are in talks with companies like Oceanworks (Los Angeles) and The Ocean Cleanup Project (Rotterdam, the Netherlands) to help us make the transition to shipping literal tons of the material.

An explanation of how we actually make the product is easy to understand. Once the plastic is recovered and shipped, it arrives at our processing facility where it is cleaned and sorted once more to ensure the lowest level of contamination possible.

The main thing we worry about in our filament is metals because these will stay solid even when the plastic has melted, causing our machines to jam.

To combat this we pass large magnets over the ocean plastic to eliminate any remaining metal.

Process equipment and details

We have a medium-sized, 15 feet-wide industrial wood chipper that works perfectly to slice even the toughest of plastics into uniform bits of about one centimeter square.

Cleaning and sizing can convert ocean plastic to raw flakes at a rate of roughly 100 pounds per hour. It takes equally as long to feed these flakes into our extruder machines where they self-spool at a rate of 1 centimeter a second. This process heats up the material to 240° C/464° F and effectively burns off any contamination that may have been missed during the cleaning process.

The whole process takes less than a day with little costs besides that of the plastic.

3D printing allows for maximum flexibility in manufacturing, a product can be designed and created within a matter of hours. Our products can be quickly customized and improved upon for virtually no extra cost. The only realistic negative with 3D printing is time since the process takes considerably longer than injection molding.

Our first product is a jet-black reusable water bottle. After learning that a huge part of ocean plastic is made up of single-use bottles, we knew our first product needed to be recycling those because reusable water bottles can last at least five years, while in that same time, the average person will use thousands of disposable bottles. When focus grouping our products and brand, nearly every demographic preferred a black water bottle to every other color.

The future

Clean Currents plans on expanding its product line quickly over the next few months. By the start of 2019, we will offer dozens of unique products. By the end of 2020, our production facility will be able to process one million pounds of plastic a year, and by 2021, this number will rise to eight million pounds. 

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