Recycle Cardboard Into Anything With 3D Printing!

43,959

457

71

Introduction: Recycle Cardboard Into Anything With 3D Printing!

About: shape enthusiast

Paper is a ubiquitous and powerful material that we use every day. From newspaper to cardboard boxes to egg cartons, our world runs on paper, and a lot of it! However, all paper products tend to share a common characteristic: they're flat. Paper is so often 2D, flexible, and flimsy because of how it's manufactured. Paper is usually formed by suction, gravity, or rolling, but what if we used a different approach? What if we could mold paper, and compact it so that it has volume? We could make 3D objects that are robust and reusable, and we could make them from the tons of single-use paper thrown away every day!

In this guide, I'm going to show you how you can recycle paper and cardboard into almost any 3D object using very basic equipment: a 3D printer, a blender, and a vise.

YouTube Video:

If you feel so inclined, vote for this project in the Reuse Contest!

The process for molding paper into solid 3D forms is as follows:

  • Blend the paper into a pulp with water
  • Mix the pulp with a water-soluble binder
  • Fill a 3D-printed mold with the pulp
  • Use a pressing tool to compact the pulp with a vice
  • Dry the molded pulp

This process of molding paper pulp can be used to create a variety of unique forms, dictated only by the geometry of the 3D-printed mold. With this guide, I am providing the designs for 7 molds:

  • 60mm Coaster
  • 25mm Cube
  • Triangle Surface
  • Wave Surface
  • Topographical Map of Mt. San Antonio
  • Dish
  • Desk Organizer

The .STL files for these molds can be downloaded from Thingiverse.

This guide will show pictures from the process of multiple mold designs.

This project was inspired by an experiment by Will Haude of 3D Brooklyn. I've been toying with this project on-and-off for about two years now, working out the fine details and exploring the practical uses of this "material".

I believe that 3D-molded pulp has two primary benefits: it could be a replacement for plastic and it can made of end-cycle paper products that can no longer be recycled by traditional means.

Supplies:

Equipment:

  • 3D Printer
  • Paper shredder (optional)
  • Scissors/snips
  • Gram scale
  • Blender/food processor
  • Cheesecloth (optional)
  • Clamps
  • Vise

Materials:

  • Cardboard, newspaper, white paper, packing material, other paper (See Step #2)
  • PVA glue, rice, or cornstarch (See Step #3)
  • Water
  • 3D printer filament (PLA works great)

Teacher Notes

Teachers! Did you use this instructable in your classroom?
Add a Teacher Note to share how you incorporated it into your lesson.

Step 1: 3D Printed Molds

The first step to recycle paper into a new form is to create a mold. In this section, I'll explain the three parts of the molds, my own mold designs, and how you can design your own.

I used a system of three-part, 3D-printed molds to create most of my molded pulp. The three parts are:

  1. Base
  2. Wall - A straight-walled frame that is perpendicular to the base
  3. Pressing Tool - A moving piece that is pushed down into the wall and compacts the paper pulp

My Molds:

All the .STLs for the mold pieces are available to download at the bottom of this step and on Thingiverse. Here is a guide for which files to download:

  • 60mm Coaster (coasterMold1/2.STL)
  • 25mm Cube (cube_base/cube_frame/cube_press.STL)
  • Triangle Surface (Mesh_base/Mesh_frame/Mesh_press.STL)
  • Sinusoidal Wave Surface (Box_base/Box_frame/Box_Sine_press.STL)
  • Mt. San Antonio Topographic Map (Box_base/frame/Box_terrain_press.STL)
  • Dish (Dish_Base/Dish_Wall/Dish_Press.STL)
  • Desk Tray (Tray_Base/Tray_Wall/Tray_Press.STL)

For your first attempt at molding paper pulp, I recommend you start with the 25mm cube.

3D Print Parameters:

The mold parts need to withstand significant pressure. You may need to adjust your settings based on your printer, but here are the settings I used:

Base Piece Settings:

  • 10-15% infill
  • 2 shells
  • 2-3 floor layers
  • 3-4 ceiling layers

Wall Piece Settings:

  • 15-20% infill
  • 3 shells
  • 2 floor layers
  • 2 ceiling layers

Pressing Tool Settings:

  • 10-15% infill
  • 2 shells
  • 2-3 floor layers
  • 2-3 ceiling layers

All mold parts were printed in PLA filament.

Designing Your Own Molds:

Okay, now let's talk nitty-gritty details. Here are some features that I've found useful to include in my mold designs (See picture):

  1. Wall-Press Tolerance
    • The wall and the pressing tool need a slight gap between them to let out water but keep in pulp. For my printer, I found a tolerance of 0.4-0.5mm worked best.
  2. Alignment Pegs
    • Having pegs on the base piece that interface with holes on the wall piece keep the mold in tight alignment and strengthens the mold overall
  3. Press Flange
    • Having a lip or flange on the pressing tool sets a minimum height for the molded paper object and helps remove the pressing tool after molding
  4. Raised base
    • Having a raised section of the base that interfaces with the inside of the wall helps alignment and prevents the base from bowing under pressure
  5. Drainage
    • Drain holes are only necessary on molds with large base surface area. I found drain holes with a diameter of 1-1.5mm work well.
  6. Fillets
    • Molds will tend to crack at sharp edges and corner. Adding lots of fillets to your design will alleviate this.

Step 2: The Paper

Now you need paper to make pulp. Almost any type of paper works:

  • Cardboard
  • White paper
  • Newspaper
  • Food clamshells
  • Formed packaging
  • Egg cartons

The only paper you want to avoid is glossy paper and coated paper.

You can mix multiple types of paper together and even throw broken/failed paper moldings in with fresh paper.

Then, you have to make your paper into small blend-able pieces. A paper shredder works great for cardboard and sheets of paper. If you don't have a shredder, you can get away with using scissors. Cut the paper into >1in pieces.

Step 3: The Binder

Now you need to choose a binder material (glue) to help keep your molded paper pulp together. The binder improves the strength of the final object and prevents the material from coming apart as it dries. The binder needs to be water-soluble to mix with the pulp and saturate the paper fibers. I experimented with three types of binder: PVA glue, rice paste, and corn starch. Here are the pros and cons of each:

  • PVA glue
    • Pros: It's the strongest binder, easy to obtain
    • Cons: Is plastic
  • Rice paste
    • Pros: Organic
    • Cons: Takes time to make
  • Corn Starch
    • Pros: Organic
    • Cons: Weakest binder, must use boiling water when making the pulp

For beginners, PVA glue is probably the easiest to use. My personal favorite is the rice paste because it is strong and organic.

How to Make Rice Paste:

  1. Take some pre-cooked white rice (short-grain or long-grain)
  2. Simmer it with water and mash it with a whisk until its homogenous
  3. Since you don't need a lot of paste to recycle paper, you can preserve extra paste by adding some clove oil and refrigerating.

Step 4: The Pulp

Now that you have the paper and the binder, it's time to turn it into pulp!

Mix the ingredients:

It's hard to predict how much paper you will need for a molding. The density of the paper fibers can vary depending on the mold geometry and your vice. Obviously, it's better to make too much pulp than not enough. Here's the average masses of my designs so you can estimate how much shredded paper to add to your pulp:

  • Tray: 60g
  • Disc: 10g
  • Dish: 40g
  • Wave: 35g
  • Triangle: 25g
  • Map: 25g
  • Cube: Varies based on height

Ratios of paper to binder:

  • PVA glue: 30g of paper : 25mL
  • Rice paste: 30g of paper : 2 tablespoons
  • Corn starch: 40g of paper : 2 tablespoons

Add your paper shreds and binder into a blender.

The last ingredient is the water. The goal here is to turn the paper and binder into a homogenous mixture with as little water as possible. Continually add small amounts of water into the blender and run the blender until it starts swirling and homogenizes.

Step 5: Pre-Pressing the Pulp

Before you can mold the pulp, you have to take some of water out first. If the pulp is too watery, it will mold poorly and will squeeze out of the mold (even explosively!).

You want to get the pulp to the consistency of wet clay. You don't need to get every drop of water out. I found wrapping the pulp in a cheesecloth and squeezing it worked great to press out the water. You can also work the pulp by hand to get water out.

Step 6: Molding the Pulp

Here we get to the real action! Assemble the mold base and wall. Reinforcing the mold with clamps will prevent bowing and distortion of the pulp, but may not be necessary depending on your vise and mold design.

Then, fill the mold with the pressed pulp you just made. Leave a bit of room at the top of the mold to help align the pressing tool. Push the pressing tool into the mold and make sure it is in line with the mold wall.

Put the whole assembly into the vise and crank it closed. You should tighten the vise as far as it will go. If you want to make the molded object thicker, then you can stop halfway-through pressing it and add more pulp.

Step 7: Drying

After about a day, you can remove the mold from the vise, remove the clamps, and pry off the pressing tool with a screwdriver. It will be suctioned to the pulp, so work around the edge and loosen it slowly. Once the pressing tool is out, leave the mold to dry for about a day.

You can then detach the base of mold. Let it dry some more. The molded paper pulp shrinks as it dries, so it will gradually loosen from the walls of the mold. Once it is dry to the touch and not soft, you should be able to push the molded paper object out. You can use the pressing tool to help push evenly.

You can put the object in front of a fan or vent to speed up the drying.

Step 8: Finishing

Once your molded paper pulp object has dried, it's time to pretty it up! Similar to any other molding process, molding paper pulp creates flashing, which is when the material creeps into the seems of the mold. You can trim this away with scissors (it cuts just like paper!).

The process sometimes creates rough faces on the object, but luckily the paper pulp sands easily with 60-grit sandpaper.

Lastly, if you need to make any holes or attach hardware to your molded part, the material can be drilled through easily.

Step 9: Results!

Look and Feel

The final molded pulp feels like paper on the surface, but it's volume gives it the feel of light wood (which makes sense given wood is just paper fibers with a binder of lignin). It's extremely rigid, and feels very comparable to plastic. It tends to keep the color of the paper it was made from, but does darken in spots that got a lot of pressure. Overall, the moldings look almost marbled, especially ones made from white paper/newspaper.

Strength

While I haven't done quantified strength tests on this material, I can anecdotally say that it is surprisingly strong. I can't break any of my moldings by hand. It took a number of hammer hits to significantly damage the desk organizer.

Shrinkage

As mentioned before, the molded paper deforms as it dries. The material expands in the axis of pressing and contracts in the other two axis. The amount of contraction depends on how densely the paper fibers are compacted, which will depend on mold geometry. Pressing the mold harder and adding more pulp will reduce the amount of shrinkage.

Water Weakness

Given they're made of paper and water soluble glue, molded objects are obviously not water-resistant. Soaking it in water quickly causes it to break down.

Biodegradability

I would imagine the molded pulp would be compostable, given that paper and rice/corn starch are both compostable on their own. Testing needed.

Step 10: Variations and Improvements

I'm not done with this project yet! I've only really scratched the surface of what you can make by molding paper pulp. I hope that this Instructables teaches you enough to go out an experiment with recycling paper on your own and improve upon my work!

Anyways, here's some ideas I've had for new directions to explore:

  • Compostability
    • Can someone chuck some of this stuff into a compost pile and see what happens? I see no reason why it wouldn't break down, as paper composts just fine (assuming the binder used is rice/corn starch/organic).
  • Solution to pre-pressing step
    • The pre-pressing step is probably the biggest inefficiency in the process, as you have to remove water that already added. Maybe there's some alternative to a blender that could shred paper to pulp without as much water?
  • Waterproofing
    • The biggest shortcoming of the molded paper compared to plastic is its weakness to water. I'd love to find some kind coating that could be applied to molded paper to make them resistant to water. Preferably the coating wouldn't be plastic or silicone and would be organic.
  • CNC machining
    • If you molded large blocks out of paper, you could probably CNC mill the blocks and carve out details that you couldn't mold. Then, you could even recycle the chips and milling dust into new blocks!
  • Using an automatic press
    • A hydraulic press instead of a vice could dramatically reduce the physical labor of the process and maybe even make the molded paper stronger.
  • Direct 3D printing
    • It would no longer be molded pulp, but what if you could use paper pulp+binder in a paste extruder?
Reuse Contest

Grand Prize in the
Reuse Contest

Be the First to Share

    Recommendations

    • Magnets Challenge

      Magnets Challenge
    • Snow Challenge

      Snow Challenge
    • Wearables Contest

      Wearables Contest

    71 Discussions

    1
    crazi_ivan
    crazi_ivan

    4 days ago

    Made my first of a few cuboro blocks. Wanted to make my kids marble track blocks and skip using plastic. From a distance newspaper has a marble look to it. Learning what moisture level works best for compressing and detail, the next block is already looking better.

    IMG_20200113_1744523.jpg
    0
    XYZAidan
    XYZAidan

    Reply 9 hours ago

    Awesome work! Thanks for sharing

    2
    BobG97
    BobG97

    5 days ago

    So excited about this idea, I got started and wanted to show the first batch. I'm currently testing a handful of ideas -- on the left is a campaign badge (friend is campaigning in Indiana, I love the idea of a biodegradable badge she can hand out) but I also wanted to push the limits of how much detail would be picked up.

    The other three are an idea I'm working on for interlocking tiles. I'd love to be able to put a huge number of these together into a larger art piece, providing variety by dying them different colors.

    All of the ones you see here were dyed using a blue gel food coloring (I wanted to see if I could stick with compostable ingredients). I plan to experiment a lot more with dyes. But the first lesson learned is that cardboard is not a neutral color. The dye I used is a deep blue, but as you can see they all turned out pretty green. I have another batch drying now where I used blue stain to see if things turn out differently; though the resultant clay was pretty similarly green.

    60005677843__B6008FDF-FA91-4A3B-AA82-75196BDC15DE.jpgIMG_5286.jpgIMG_5287.jpgIMG_5288.jpg
    0
    XYZAidan
    XYZAidan

    Reply 5 days ago

    Whoa!! Fantastic work, thank you for sharing. I'm so happy to see people picking up the project.
    I love the idea of the badge! Lets you have plastic-like forms and detail without polluting the environment after its single use.
    The dying and coloring is awesome as well. Please keep sharing your experiments!!

    0
    sillywilly
    sillywilly

    Tip 10 days ago

    I have found in past experiments with moulding paper pulp into building blocks that adding partial cans of old latex paint to the mix helps it bind without any other binder, even paint that has a solid layer on top of liquid! I also used strickly portland cement with the pulp and that wasn't bad. Some of the best used a small amount of old latex paint mixed with portland cement. I did not measure the binders but that would have been the next step if I had pursued it more. What about adding some latex and/or portland cement to some fine clay? The clay might fill in any gaps in the pulp while the choice of binder would solidify it more?
    I also found that the pulp and portland cement test blocks were very fire resistant!
    Will D.

    0
    PGeary
    PGeary

    16 days ago

    This is an impressive project, not sure if the idea is entirely new, but it certainly has some serious merit.

    I have a few ideas I wanted to put down for others to see that have cropped into my mind whilst watching your video on the whole process.


    Firstly, for water-proofing, people have already suggested various options, but they are all suggesting that they are painted or sprayed on after the part has been made.

    I suggest that instead what should be done is this: During the initial water-removal stage, the pulp should have pressure applied to it rapidly to remove more water than just kneading it by hand would provide, then, in it's place, the 100% eco-friendly (Non-Plastic) waterproofing solutions can be added to the mass of cardboard inside the blender, re-mixing it thoroughly so that the cardboard mixes evenly with the waterproofing agent, this would then be used in the rest of the process the same way as it would have been if you'd only removed the high water content from the cardboard pulp. This early integration of a waterproofing agent into the mix would help to ensure as much of the end part is as water-resistant as possible.


    Now, onto a few of my other suggestions.


    Second; use of additional eco-friendly & biodegradable materials to increase structural rigidity, and reduce any potential stress induced warping to the end product once it is molded and being used.

    A few suggestions for this are as follows......

    Coir (sometimes called "coconut fibre") is a potential material that could be added to the mix; Either during the first blending stage when the mix is dry, Or, after the cardboard has been mixed with the binding agent but before the waterproofing agent has been mixed in, coir is a fibrous material that comes from the outside of the coconut shell and its fibrous properties would suit it to being used to help increase the tensile strength and rigidity of the end product, a Ratio of Cardboard/Paper-to-Coir-to-Binding Agent-to-Waterproofing agent would need to be calculated through many tests, but it is one potential option.



    Option number 2, Bamboo fibres, bamboo is a monocotolydone, or mono cot for short, or as some people may call it, a "Grass", so it's fibres are also perfectly suited to be used as a structural agent material in the same way that the coir would be used. I'm sure other materials like natural wool fibres,and various other natural bio-degradable fabrics would also be potential options. In fact fabrics so long as they are natural & biodegradable may provide the ideal solution to creating a much more structurally withstanding material.




    My last idea is natural dyes that are plant based, these could be added at just on stage, at all stages or at various stages throught the material production process before molding takes places, providing the ability to add colour to your end products, perhaps even just using existing paper/cardboard that has natural dyes in it could also be an option as then you could just use a large amount of it in the mix without having to add any extra dye, or to complement the dye that you do add.






    These are all of the ideas I can think of right now, I have a few others but my brains about to conk out so I'll add them at a later time in a few hours.




    Apologies for any spelling or grammatical errors, I'm typing on mobile and due to the Instructables websites design, I can't see what I am actually typing.



    Many thanks for this great project, this has really inspired me this morning :)

    0
    BobG97
    BobG97

    19 days ago

    Bought a blender to try this out and burned it up in the first making of pulp. (It was a cheap one, the blame lies with me.) But can you recommend the one that you used? I'd love to keep trying.

    0
    XYZAidan
    XYZAidan

    Reply 16 days ago

    I'm sorry to hear that!! I used an old blender from Cuisinart.

    0
    alfon1917
    alfon1917

    18 days ago

    A great idea. Equally great is the fact that you keep working on it, experimenting further etc.

    A few thoughts:
    - On waterproofing: Woodworkers have a large amount of know-how. This has already been pointer out by others, but to keep the organic/non-polluting character of this, there are at least two ways you can go: oils and shellac. I would stay away from commercial "boiled linseed oil", as it reportedly usually (always?) contains metallic driers, which can be quite nasty. My personal choice is walnut oil. Walnut oil is rather expensive and can be used in cooking, but If you look around you may be able to find it cheaply in non-food-safe versions (I guess this just means that it was processed, bottled etc in ways that do not meet guidelines for food). After brushing your object with walnut oil, let it dry for a couple of days, then brush it with shellac - as many coats as you want. Shellac dries quickly and you can apply more coats within minutes. The end result will NOT be waterproof, but it will be fairly water-resistant. For a more waterproof solution you would look into a polyurethane varnish, but this would largely defeat the purpose of this all, which in my mind is the eco-friendliness.

    One more thing: I would hesitate to use this in a compost, with seedlings etc, unless I had made the paper myself in the first place. In the manufacture of paper, many chemical additives are used (including but not limited to bleach). This is not important in general use (Essentially what you do keeps paper away from dumps, so it protects the environment. Even if it does eventually get dumped, this will have a zero net effect compared to dumping it in the first place, perhaps even positive in that it will have kept you from using other, more harmful materials in its place) but using paper in ways that (parts of) it will end up in your food is something I would avoid.

    0
    jacofiero
    jacofiero

    4 weeks ago

    Nice tutorial! Love the idea. I'll have to evict something from my mind palace for this process. I'm at capacity.

    I'd also recommend shellac for waterproofing/finishing. It's as organic/eco-friendly as you're going to get. Buy it in flakes instead of pre-mixed (like a Zinnser product or similar).

    I can only imagine that cardboard absorbs finish like crazy, and that compressed cardboard inflates like a sponge if it gets wet. To keep it from expanding/dissolving I'd try a really thick mix for the first coat to seal it up, then some thinner ones to smooth the surface. You'll get the best results spraying shellac (w/ a HVLP spray gun or something similar). It's a little challenging to brush/wipe on evenly.

    You could get some impressive results painting over shellac, but that would stray from the eco-friendly theme quite a bit.

    I wonder if there are some organic dyes to add when you're mixing the pulp? Could be cool.

    0
    alfon1917
    alfon1917

    Reply 18 days ago

    Food coloring?

    0
    maries44
    maries44

    19 days ago on Step 10

    Wow! This is super rad. Thanks for including your thoughts in improving and refining the design further. I like the combination of hi tech with more traditional processes like the cheesecloth.

    1
    danishdesign7
    danishdesign7

    19 days ago

    Super Cool. Very useful !! It will be used into design products at almost zero CO2 emissions.
    You deserve the alternative nobel prize.

    1
    zakbobdop
    zakbobdop

    20 days ago

    This is awesome! +1 vote for you :D
    (Would you still be able mold the pulp into less elaborate shapes without the printed molds?)

    1
    jessyjones
    jessyjones

    22 days ago

    Great instructable, thouroughly explained and documented - thanks a lot for sharing !

    0
    terrefirmax2
    terrefirmax2

    Reply 21 days ago

    (spell check!)

    0
    jessyjones
    jessyjones

    Reply 21 days ago

    Thoroughly* indeed!

    1
    CramerPDX
    CramerPDX

    4 weeks ago on Step 2

    There’s actually an aquaphobic coating that can be obtained at Home Depot or online that can be sprayed onto these molds to make them waterproof. Look into it. I like what you’re doing here. I just wish that I could properly 3D print - but my uArm Swift Pro is acting up. If there was a way to actually be able to 3D print cardboard it would be even more awesome right?

    0
    Newbie of PCB
    Newbie of PCB

    Reply 21 days ago

    it might be possible if you replace hot-end into some moist(but not wet) material, with nozzle sort of hair-drying the pulp.

    0
    0zzy
    0zzy

    Reply 4 weeks ago

    Yes that would be great the only way I can think of doing it is to replace the hot end of the 3D printer and put the pulp into a syringe then have some sort of motor to push the plunger of the syringe down to print the design
    Bit like a food 3D printer ?