Sustainable 3D Printing at Williams College (Part 2)

Polyformer Updates:

Polyformer 3D printed parts and electronics ready to be assembled.

Polyformer 3D printed parts and electronics ready to be assembled.

My name is Camily Hidalgo Goncalves, and I am a sophomore at Williams College majoring in Chemistry with a Neuroscience concentration. As a Makerspace student worker, I have recruited Milton Vento ’26, Tashrique Ahmed ’26 (both Computer Science students at Williams College and fellow Makerspace student workers), and Oscar Caino ’27, a student at Swarthmore College who is a prospective Engineering major, to assist me in assembling the Polyformer parts and electronics. We have completed several milestones, and made significant progress on the Polyformer project at Williams College. This innovative project aims to upcycle waste plastic bottles into locally-sourced 3D printer filament.

Assembly and Integration

The assembled Polyformer

The assembled Polyformer

Milton, Oscar and I worked together to assemble the 78 individual 3D-printed parts required for the Polyformer. This intricate process demanded precision and teamwork. Following the assembly of the physical components, I assisted Tashrique with integrating the electronics. This included the installation of a circuit board, LCD screen, volcano heater block, stepper motor, and various sensors and wiring. These components are essential for the Polyformer to function effectively, converting plastic bottles into usable 3D printer filament. 

Collection and Processing of Plastic Bottles

Plastic bottle collection poster.

Plastic bottle collection poster.

In preparation for testing, we collected approximately 75 plastic bottles. These bottles were contributed by the Williams College community, demonstrating a collective effort to reduce plastic waste. Elena Sore ‘27, a prospective Computer Science major and Makerspace student worker, and I worked on the initial step in the processing phase, which involved us cleaning the bottles and cutting them into long, consistent ribbons. These plastic ribbons will then be fed into the Polyformer, where they will be melted and extruded into filament.

Testing and Quality Assurance

Next fall semester we will begin rigorous testing to ensure that the Polyformer operates smoothly and produces high-quality filament that meets the required standards for 3D printing. Several tests will be conducted, including:

  1. Durability Testing: Assessing the strength and flexibility of the produced filament.
  2. Consistency Testing: Ensuring the filament has a uniform diameter, which is crucial for reliable 3D printing.
  3. Compatibility Testing: Verifying that the filament performs well with various 3D printers and printing conditions, while accommodating different material thicknesses from various brands of PET bottles.

Project Goals and Benefits

The Polyformer project aligns with Williams College’s sustainability goals and offers numerous benefits:

  • Waste Reduction: By upcycling plastic bottles, we reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills or oceans.
  • Sustainability Education: The project serves as a hands-on educational tool, teaching students about the importance of repurposing and innovative ways to repurpose waste materials.
  • Local Impact: The filament produced will be used to create practical items such as plant pots and compost bins for the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, supporting local sustainability efforts.

Next Steps

We hope to create a sustainable cycle of converting plastic waste into useful products, while minimizing the environmental impact of plastic disposal. This project provides practical solutions to plastic waste,  and also serves as an educational tool, raising awareness about sustainability and encouraging innovative thinking in environmental conservation.

As we move forward, our next steps will be to refine the process and increase the efficiency of the Polyformer:

  1. Rigorous Testing: Thoroughly test the Polyformer to ensure it produces reliable and high-quality filament that meets 3D printing standards.
  2. Scaling Up: Increase the number of collected bottles and the quantity of filament produced.
  3. Educational Workshops: Host campus workshops to educate the broader community about the Polyformer and the importance of sustainable practices. We might seek to collaborate with the Williamstown Milne Library to host a workshop for local community members.
  4. Research and Development: Continue to improve the design and functionality of the Polyformer based on feedback and test results.


Assembling the Polyformer: Oscar Caino ‘27, a Swarthmore College student (left), and Camily Hidalgo Goncalves ‘26, a Williams College student (right).

Assembling the Polyformer: Oscar Caino ‘27, a Swarthmore College student (left), and Camily Hidalgo Goncalves ‘26, a Williams College student (right).

This project would not have been possible without the ongoing support and collaboration received. We are immensely grateful to our collaborators: David Keiser-Clark (Makerspace Program Manager), Milton Vento ‘26, Tashrique Ahmed ‘26 and Elena Sore ‘27 (Makerspace Student Workers), Yvette Belleau (Lead Custodian, Facilities), Christine Seibert (Sustainability Coordinator, Zilkha Center), Mike Evans (Deputy Director, Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives), and Oscar Caino ‘27 (Swarthmore College Student). Their expertise, guidance, and contributions have been invaluable to the progress of the Polyformer project.

Stay tuned for more updates as we continue to develop and test the Polyformer. Together, we can make a significant impact in reducing plastic waste and promoting sustainable practices at Williams College.

TIDE Grant: Sustainable and Reusable STEM Learning Kits for Students in Under-Resourced 5th and 6th Grade Classrooms

Written by Divine Uwimana ’27 and Elena Sore ’27


Our latest prototype of the car includes a winding mechanism, which will act as an additional modification of the base kit.

Our latest prototype of the car includes a winding mechanism, which will act as an additional modification of the base kit.

In an ideal world, students would have equal access to education, but that isn’t the case. While some schools have the latest learning technologies, hands-on opportunities, and all the funding they need, others are trying to give students the highest quality education they can without access to these resources. Worst of all, the schools negatively impacted are often in historically underrepresented communities, often ones with large populations of people of color, perpetuating a cycle of poverty. While brainstorming ways of helping our local communities as part of the TIDE Grant (Towards Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Grant) proposal, providing more equitable access to STEM education was a clear way we thought we could make an impact. Building these STEM kits is a way we Williams students can use our education and access to help build up the community around us.

What is Hands-On STEM Education?

Hands-on STEM education uses physical interaction to provide real-world experiences that help reinforce the concepts being taught. While they can be helpful to the learning process, these experiences are often expensive. Whether it’s premade kits that can cost upwards of 40 dollars a student or involve costly field trips, these experiences often don’t fit within the budgets of schools. This disparity is critical to solve because studies have shown that hands-on learning opportunities help students retain what they learn better than standard learning methods such as lecturing. The problem is exacerbated in the education of younger students (K-6 range) because younger children’s lower attention spans can cause them to lose focus more quickly in the absence of active and experiential pedagogy.

This problem doesn’t only exist in a classroom setting. Many attempts have been made to bring hands-on learning to the home as supplemental education and homeschooling tools; however, cost is even more of a problem here. One of the largest companies currently producing these kits for home use is Crunch Labs. While they are similarly priced, averaging around $30 a kit, the requirement to purchase a monthly subscription typically results in costs of $300 or more per child. Also, Crunch Labs and other kits built for a home environment are often not reusable.

Access to hands-on STEM education is so important because high-quality STEM education improves students’ creativity and problem-solving skills. Research has shown that exposing kids to STEM in elementary school – especially between the first and third grades – provides students with the foundation they need to succeed in STEM-field careers. According to the research, U.S. adults with 1-2 years of experience in the workforce have reported the highest exposure to STEM concepts in elementary school. Between the ages of 5 and 8, 46% of this population experienced a STEM-related track in school and 53% of this population currently works in a job that is either entirely or heavily involves STEM – by far the largest percentage of any sector of jobs in the workforce. This suggests that exposing students to STEM at a young age captures their imagination and keeps them interested in science, technology, engineering, and math jobs early in their careers.

As student workers in the Makerspace, Divine Uwimana ‘27 and I, Elena Sore ‘27, met and collaborated with Paula Consolini, Adam Falk Director of the Center for Learning in Action, Tanja Srebotnjak (Director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives), and David Keiser-Clark (Makerspace Program Manager). We identified a few critical criteria for STEM kits:

  1. Our STEM Kits need to be as low-cost as possible to produce. To ensure this, we must find creative ways to reduce material usage and implement supplies students may already have in their classrooms into the kits.
  2. We must design STEM kits to leverage existing lesson plans and learning requirements to ensure that the STEM kits fulfill the educational needs and standards set out by organizations like the Department of Education. 
  3. The STEM Kits must be designed to be reusable, durable, and sustainable, using sustainably sourced and produced materials wherever possible.


Divine and I began the brainstorming process by researching existing STEM kits currently available on the market and how we might further improve them for our demographic group with respect to the aforementioned criteria. Since we both had little experience in the field beforehand, we wanted to understand better the design features other organizations used to create highly engaging STEM kits. Some of the qualities we observed that we believe we should replicate are listed below:

  • A good STEM kit is highly interactive. Parts of the kit, especially mechanical parts, should be designed so that students can visually see what is happening and how the action they are putting in is causing the final result.
  • A good STEM kit should not be a “one and done.” Ideally, a STEM kit will have multiple stages that allow students to build upon a product in stages, introducing new concepts or building on previous concepts.
  • A good STEM kit should be a manageable length. Even if students are having fun, dragging it out too long risks boring the students and causing the learning aspect to be ineffective.
  • A good STEM kit should be fun yet educational. This means balancing the kit to both be rich in academic concepts and interesting to keep them engaged.
  • A good STEM kit should encourage teamwork and cooperation. It should allow kids to work together to build their social skills while learning.
  • A good STEM kit should allow “trial and error.” It should enable the kids to learn from mistakes and thus build their problem-solving skills.
  • A good STEM kit should be simple yet visually complex. Just because the final mechanism is a complex contraption doesn’t mean the process of assembling it can’t be simplified and streamlined.
Front and back views of the mechanical scotty dog kit from Carnegie Mellon University.

Front and back views of the mechanical scotty dog kit from Carnegie Mellon University.

During our design process, we also got to experience assembling a STEM kit first-hand, specifically the mechanical Scotty dog kit we received from Carnegie Mellon University, courtesy of Professor Bill Nace and Professor Robert Zacharias. The materials used to assemble it are easy to manufacture, primarily made of thin sheets of wood and acrylic with 3D-printed plastic parts. The design is simple but very interesting; a single motor in the middle drives both the tail wagging on the back and the head bobbing on the front through a system of gears on the back. The head is made to bob up and down in a specific pattern through the radius of the spinning piece increasing or decreasing as it turns, creating a pattern of head movements that feels random. The tail spins on an arm and is locked upright using a bracket, making the tail wag back and forth with a simple spinning motion. Finally, all of this is controlled with a light sensor, allowing the user to control the speed of the motion by raising or lowering their hand above it. All these mechanisms combined to create a fascinating kit from a design standpoint, with a lot of interactivity and interesting mechanisms on display while being very quick for us to reassemble, even without instructions.

From this experience, we better understood how to design an effective STEM kit. Then, we started brainstorming ideas for STEM kits that we could create. At the end of this brainstorming, we ended up with three designs we wanted to develop further. The first is a model car, which would use a wind-up mechanism built by students to showcase the properties of potential and kinetic energy. The second idea is an energy kit expansion for the car, allowing students to electrify it while teaching them the basics of electricity and explaining renewable solar energy concepts. Finally, the third idea is a solar system kit, which would be focused on having students assemble a solar system model to teach about the planets in our galaxy and our place in the universe. With these initial ideas, we started prototyping the model car kit.

Prototyping the Model Car Kit

An initial prototype for the base car kit, giving us an idea of what the final product may look like.

An initial prototype for the base car kit, giving us an idea of what the final product may look like.

The main idea of our wind-up car kit was simple. But, as with many projects, it quickly evolved into a complex design with many digital iterations and three 3D printed prototypes. For this first design, a 3D printed base would connect the two cardboard sides and help support the back axle, which would wind up using a rubber band attached to it and the frame. Wooden dowels would act as axles and bottle caps as wheels, so when you pulled it back, the car would launch forward using energy stored in the rubber band. 

While this was a great initial idea, we encountered some problems. First, cutting out the sides made of cardboard proved difficult because two holes needed to be cut in the middle of it for axles. Ultimately, we decided that the side pieces should be replaced with laser-cut wood in the final design, which would be reusable and easier for kids to work with while providing more structural rigidity. Another issue we discovered was that the rubber band would stay on the axle instead of coming unhooked at the end, catching it, and abruptly stopping the car. Our solution was to move the hook point for the rubber band forward so it had enough energy to detach itself from the axle at the end. We also had to ensure this expansion didn’t use too much plastic, as we hope to create all the filament ourselves using recycled PET from locally gathered plastic bottles. We ended up using a honeycomb pattern, often seen in structures that use empty space to save material resources while retaining structural integrity, and by implementing this we were able to save sufficient plastic such that the larger prototypes consumed less plastic than our smaller initial prototype.

Our first three prototypes for the 3D printed base, showing how it evolved to meet the project's needs while remaining efficient in plastic usage.

Our first three prototypes for the 3D printed base, showing how it evolved to meet the project’s needs while remaining efficient in plastic usage.

For our third prototype, we rounded and smoothed as many parts as possible to prevent sharp points or edges that can occur in 3D printing. We also did this to prevent sharp points from catching or breaking the rubber band. Finally, we modified the slot at the front for the rubber band to help the car retain it, even after it detaches from the axle.

The biggest problem we ran into was not with the design of the base but with the kit itself. Our initial idea was interesting but violated one of our initial design rules. The kit was just one thing: assembling the car with the rubber band. If we wanted to make an exciting kit, we had to make at least one additional stage involving more engineering and differently demonstrating the concepts of potential and kinetic energy. 

While looking for inspiration, we stumbled upon a design by a maker named Greg Zumwalt for a 3D Printable Wind-Up Car that used a simple mechanism to limit the speed, allowing it to move farther and longer after windup as opposed to a design like ours, which simply went at top speed after release. Looking into this project’s mechanics, we realized that a similar design could be perfect to demonstrate the ways energy can be modified in the process of converting from potential to kinetic energy. So, to better understand how the mechanics worked, we downloaded the files and began printing them out to design a similar mechanism within the constraints of our model kit.

It was at this moment that the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion announced that our application for a TIDE grant was accepted and that our STEM kit project would be funded. 

Next Steps

Our next steps are to complete the second expanded energy source for our car prototype, align that with curricular concepts, and then meet later this month with an elementary school teacher to share our project and hear initial feedback. We plan to incorporate that feedback into the car prototype and then next meet with that teacher’s class and observe student reactions to utilizing it. As we continue to build several STEM kits, our theme will be to test, demonstrate, observe, seek feedback, iterate, and repeat. We hope these kits might have a significant impact on elementary students’ education in the Berkshires.

Whittle by Whittle: Zilkha Center Garden Signs 

When I was a prospective student, I recall my host bringing me near the Class of 1966 Environmental Center (“Envi Center”) to meet some of their friends. While passing through, I noticed a group of students picking apples from a tree and pulling weeds in the garden beds. As I took an apple from their bin and had a bite, I was incredibly overjoyed to see a garden after just having started one at my high school. Now, as a student and summer intern, I had the opportunity to see the hard work that goes into the maintenance to make the gardens a community space for all. This is why, when Christine Seibert, the Sustainability Coordinator at the Zilkha Center, reached out to the Makerspace for a project to make signage for the Envi Center gardens, I jumped at the opportunity to support this project!

Garden Beds behind the 1966 Environmental Center

Pre-project photo of the Garden Beds (without signage) behind the 1966 Environmental Center

The garden beds are an integral part of the Envi Center. Under the Living Building Challenge certification, the building is required to operate as a net-zero energy and water space, with 35% of the surrounding land area in food production. The beds are supported by the Center for Environmental Studies (CES) and the Zilkha Center (ZC), and maintained by ZC interns and Williams Sustainable Growers (WSG). Additionally, Landscape Ecology Coordinator Felicity Purzycki advises overall orchard maintenance.

These gardens provide opportunities for community building, food production, and help teach students new skills. With these goals also come challenges. While talking to Christine about the signage project, she mentioned how garden interns already have a lot to do maintaining the gardens. This has made it difficult to find bandwidth to create signage about what is being grown and share meta information about the gardens. In addition, the current wood cookies used for signage are beginning to fade. For more than four years, the Zilkha Center has wanted a more permanent and prominent solution to identify and distinguish plants grown; this will also help ZC interns and other people to know what is ready—or not—to pick. The new signage will cover three areas: identifying the perennial and annual plants, teaching people how to use the gardens through the honorable harvest, and when certain items are ready to be picked. 

Yoheidy sits with her series of laser engraved wood slabs. She later added a laser engraved metal QR code label that directs users to the hosted video tour.

Yoheidy sits with her series of laser engraved wood slabs. She later added a laser engraved metal QR code label that directs users to the hosted video tour.

Inspiration was taken from a project recently completed by Yoheidy (Yoyo) Feliz ‘26, who engraved wood slabs to make signs for visitors going through the virtual exhibit tour at the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe’s exhibit in Stockbridge. Those wood slabs were sourced from Hopkins Memorial Forest which is also where our project’s journey began!

The sugar maple that provided logs for the signage

The sugar maple that provided logs for the signage

We received Sugar Maple logs claimed from the old grove across from the sugar shack with the support of Josh Sandler, Interim Hopkins Forest Manager. This tree fell two years ago, and had not yet been repurposed; the tree was part of the maple sugar grove that has a long history of being used for maple sugaring in Hopkins Memorial Forest. The logs were harvested with the help of a chainsaw by caretaker Javi Jenkins-Soresnen ‘25 who has a lot of experience in forestry.   

Logs into Lumber 

Sam Samuel '26 creating a temporary sled guide to saw logs into planks with bandsaw

Sam Samuel ’26 creating a temporary sled guide to saw logs into planks with bandsaw

Once we received the logs, we had a series of sessions in the Williams Hopper Science Shop with Makerspace Program Manager David Keiser-Clark and Instrumentation Engineer Jason Mativi. Our goal was to mill the logs into 35 planks measuring 4″x20″ with approximately a 1″ thickness. We purchased cedar posts—that had formerly been telephone polls—locally from the Eagle Lumber sawmill in Stamford, VT. In the end, we were able to create exactly 37 planks, leaving us with precious little room for error.                

Given the unevenness of the natural logs received, the first step was to build a sled (a platform) that would stabilize each log as we sliced them into planks with the bandsaw. We affixed each log to the sled with a couple screws (carefully avoiding the path of the bandsaw blade), sliced to create a flat side, then rotated the log 90 degrees and sliced again. After making two contiguous flat sides, we were able to slice the log more conveniently by using the bandsaw fence and tabletop. 

Completed lumber that was then left to dry for a week.

Completed lumber that was then left to dry for a week.

After cutting each plank, we let them dry for a week; this allowed them to shrink and to cup or curl (warp) a week. Before drying, the maple measured between 8 to 20% moisture content. Typically when letting wood dry, you want to stack your lumber with spacers to allow air flow to all sides, and allow it to dry for six months or more. Because we were short on time, we used spacers and placed weights on top of the stacks, hoping to aid them in drying flat. After a week of drying, we were able to visually see shrinkage and some warping. 

We then used the wood jointer to create one flat edge; this process created a nearly perfectly flat and square edge that was perpendicular to the wider section of the board. We then placed that flat edge against the fence of the table saw to create a second clean edge parallel to the jointed edge. We used the jointer again to create a nearly perfectly flat surface on the wide side of the board. Next we used the thickness planer to flatten the top face of the plank and be parallel with the bottom face. This work resulted in creating beautiful rectangular sugar maple planks that were both parallel and square. We repeated this process for each board.


After we had jointed, sliced, and planed the maple logs into boards, Mativi and David taught me how to use the Epilog Laser Helix engraver to make a Welcome sign, informational signs for the Rain Garden, Solar Meadow, and Picking Sign, and also 31 plant identification signs. It was my first time using a laser engraver and I had to be conscious about placement, size, as well as laser power and speed. Using CorelDraw (software), I centered each sign’s text to the middle of the engraver platform, which ended up being 12 inches on the x-axis and 9 inches on the y-axis. I worried endlessly about placement and sizing so I first experimented on matboard. Despite my experimentation, I still had some underlying issues given varying thickness and placements that are evident in my very first attempts at engraving. Each laser engraving requires 15 to 20 minutes, and I often repeated that process two or three times to burn a deeper image into the wood.

Plank inside of Epilog Laser Helix after one round of engraving

Plank inside of Epilog Laser Helix after one round of engraving

First batch of completed planks for plants

First batch of completed planks for plants


Next Steps

Sam Samuel '26 rounding corners with belt sander

Sam Samuel ’26 rounding corners with belt sander

I expect to complete laser engraving all of the signs within the next two weeks. The next step will be to affix the signs onto cedar posts; Jason Mativi has already cut those into 48” lengths including a spiked tip to make it easier to drive them into the ground. The final steps will include sanding the sharp corners and adding a natural Walrus tung oil preservative to better show the grain and improve longevity. It will be exciting to see the signs all over the Envi Center gardens! 


Postscript (May 2, 2024)

Sam Samuel '26 with 37 laser-engraved signs for the Envi Center gardens. This project was sourced from three 24" sugar maple logs from a fallen tree in Hopkins Memorial Forest,

Sam Samuel ’26 with 37 laser-engraved signs for the Envi Center gardens. This project was sourced from three 24″ sugar maple logs from a fallen tree in Hopkins Memorial Forest,

Sustainable 3D Printing at Williams College (Part 1)


The Polyformer: upcycle bottle waste to 3D printer filament

The Polyformer: upcycle bottle waste to 3D printer filament

The massive amount of plastic bottles incinerated or dumped in landfills or oceans is a growing global concern. In the United States alone, despite recycling efforts, 22 billion plastic bottles are incorrectly disposed of each year. It is evident that our current recycling strategy has been falling short for the past 60 years, and it gives us false confidence to continue our plastic-dependent lifestyle. In response to this urgent problem, Williams College, through a collaboration between the Makerspace and Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, has embarked on an innovative sustainable 3D-printing project that seeks to upcycle plastic bottles into 3D print filament. 

Recycling Methods: Ineffectual at Best and Deceptive at Worst

The current state of plastic waste recycling presents significant challenges and limitations. Recent statistics highlight the large scale of this issue as well as the urgent need to seek innovative and improved solutions.  The United States, for example, generated approximately 40 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, of which only 5-6% (two million tons) were recycled, far below previous estimates. Moreover, between 2019 and 2020, there was a 5.7% global decrease in plastics recovered for recycling, resulting in a net decrease of 290 million pounds. These statistics indicate a concerning downward trend in plastic recycling efforts. 

The annual global production of approximately 400 million tons of plastic waste adds to the growing environmental crisis. Import bans by countries like China and Turkey have hindered recycling efforts, as the United States previously relied on outsourcing a significant portion of its plastic waste for recycling. The inherent challenges of plastic recycling, such as its degradation in quality with repeated recycling, make it less suitable for circular recycling processes. In the United States, the total bottle recycling rate has declined, with 2.5 million plastic bottles discarded every hour. Similarly, the global accumulation of plastic waste in oceans, estimated to be between 75 and 199 million tons, poses a severe threat to marine life and ecosystems, and the long degradation time of plastic bottles, which can take over 450 years, adds to the concern.

These statistics emphasize the pressing need to address the limitations of Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic recycling. Relying solely on conventional recycling methods is inadequate to tackle the magnitude of the problem. Innovative approaches, such as upcycling, are crucial for effectively reducing plastic waste and minimizing our environmental impact. By finding alternative uses for plastic materials, we can break free from the limitations of circular recycling processes and make a significant change in helping eradicate the plastic waste crisis.

Myths, Pros, and Cons of Recycling and Upcycling

Recycling: Despite its benefits, the reality is that after being collected and aggregated, much of the recycled content is stored in unsafe locations until it overflows and is eventually landfilled or burned. Recent incidents, such as a recycling center fire in Richmond, Indiana, highlight the dangers, inefficiencies, and serious consequences of the current recycling system. 

In addition, when plastics are recycled, their potential recyclability is subsequently decreased. PET is classified as grade 1 plastic due to its high recycling potential. However, once it is recycled, it downgrades to the 7th grade, which is no longer recyclable. For this reason, at the Williams Makerspace, we decided to implement the strategy of upcycling that aims to repurpose PET plastic instead of recycling it to provide longer durability. 

Upcycling: Upcycling offers an alternative approach by diverting items from the waste stream and enabling their reuse. While upcycling may not restore plastic to its original grade, it provides a longer second life for the material before it becomes waste once again. Upcycling is the practice of transforming a disposable object into one of greater value. Therefore, upcycling contrasts the idea that an object has no value once disposed of or must be destroyed before reentering a new circle of production and value creation. 

The Polyformer Prototype and Its Value

The Polyformer is a sustainable 3D printing project that aims to convert PET plastic bottles into 3D printer filament. For the purposes of this project, the filament will initially be used to produce 3D-printed plant pots and compost bins for the Zilkha Center, effectively converting waste into items that can be utilized on a day-to-day basis. This process could reduce the purchase of virgin plastic objects (i.e., pots and bins), reducing carbon-related shipping emissions and reducing waste generated by single-use plastics. This project aims to explore the environmental impact of repurposing on-site waste into products needed on campus. Additionally, this project offers a prototype for developing locally-sourced 3D printer filament, which would reduce our dependence on purchasing virgin filament that is typically sourced from other countries, such as China, and bears a carbon footprint. The project’s goals include providing an educational opportunity for the students to engage in environmental activism by repurposing single-use plastic bottles into 3D filament and useful objects for the Williams College community. 

The Polyformer is an open-source project with over 4,000 Discord members. It is a prototype and has pain points, such as that the bottles require manual cleaning, individual manual placement onto the machine, and any impurities that can cause the filament to fail (break or clog) in the 3D printer. The Polyformer community is actively addressing these issues, and while solutions do not yet exist, this is an exciting project that offers an opportunity to disrupt the stream of plastic waste.

Project Goals and Alignment with Williams’ Strategic Objectives

The project’s goals align with the Williams College Zero Waste Action Plan, which builds upon the sustainability strategy in the college’s strategic plan, focusing on three of its goals. Firstly, it offers an educational opportunity for students to engage in environmental activism and learn about upcycling as a solution to plastic waste. Secondly, the project promotes sustainability by reducing waste and carbon emissions associated with single-use plastics. Thirdly, it reinforces Williams College’s commitment to local engagement and community impact by providing practical and sustainable solutions to address environmental challenges.

Building the Polyformer

Polyformer: Parts View

Polyformer: Parts View

The Polyformer is a tool that will allow Makerspace student workers to manually automate cutting a water bottle into a long, consistent ribbon that feeds into a repurposed 3D printer hot end, converting it into a standard 1.75 mm filament. Building a Polyformer requires 3D printing 78 individual parts and then assembling those with a Bill of Materials (BOM) that can be sourced individually or purchased as a kit. This acquired kit includes a circuit board, LCD screen, a volcano heater block and 0.4 mm hot end, a stepper motor, stainless steel tubing, bearings, neodymium magnets, lots of wires, and a box of metal fasteners. 

We have printed all 78 parts, and my fellow Makerspace student workers have been instrumental in helping to complete that process. The next stage, which I plan to begin this summer, is assembling and testing the Polyformer to transform the plastic bottles into 3D-printer filament. 

Polyformer as a Disruptor

This project aims to disrupt our plastic-centric world in several ways. By repurposing plastic bottles into valuable filament, it challenges the notion that disposables have no value once discarded. Furthermore, it reduces dependence on external filament sources and contributes to a more self-sufficient and sustainable production cycle.

Polyformer: Next Steps

Polyformer assembly

Polyformer assembly

The project is currently in the prototyping phase, and this summer, I hope to begin assembling the Polyformer and, subsequently, testing it under a science lab hood. We will use a hood to vent the area because the process of melting PET/G ribbon, from the bottles, into filament releases antimony – a suspected carcinogen — and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When our Polyformer works as expected, students will

then volunteer to collect approximately 200 plastic bottles (a standard 1 kg roll of filament requires approximately 40 bottles) to manufacture sufficient filament to produce the four large plant pots and 22 compost bins. The pots and bins will be provided to Zilkha Center gardening interns and the Sustainable Living Community at the College, serving as practical examples of upcycling in action.


The sustainable 3D printing project at Williams College represents a powerful initiative to combat plastic waste through upcycling. By repurposing plastic bottles into valuable filament and creating sustainable products, the project aligns with Williams’ commitment to environmental stewardship and community engagement. Through innovative approaches like this, we can work towards a future with reduced plastic waste, increased sustainability, and a more conscious approach to consumption.


  1. USA Plastic Bottles Pollution:
  2. Plastic Pollution as a Global Issue:
  3. The evolution and current situation of Plastic Pollution:
  4. What is Upcycling?:
  5. What is the Polyformer?:
  6. Recycling data:
  7. Plastics Material Specific Data:
  8. Richmond, Indiana Recycling Plant Fire:
  9. Williams College Strategic Plan and Zero Waste Action Plan: