The James Dyson Award is part of a wider commitment by Sir James Dyson, the man behind some of most coveted home appliances, to demonstrate the power of engineers to change the world. The annual competition has supported over 300 inventions with prize money, and is run by the James Dyson Foundation, an engineering-education charity funded by Dyson profits.

This year’s Global Sustainability Award winner includes a Canadian project and we’re excited to learn more about the team behind Polyformer– an open-source machine that recycles waste plastic into 3D printer filament. BTW, this is the third time since the James Dyson Award was launched in 2005 that a Canadian entry has been an international winner.

Swaleh Owais from McMaster University, Canada, and Reiten Cheng from ArtCenter College of Design, USA, joined forces to create Polyformer, which aims to solve two problems: recycling plastic waste and accessibility to 3D printing.

Plastic recycling is a worldwide challenge, with just over a quarter of total bottles recycled properly and it taking upwards of 450 years to degrade. Instead, the Polyformer can take one standard 500ml plastic bottle and produce three metres of 3D printer filament.

3D printer filament can also be a costly purchase for many creators and hobbyists, but this is particularly true for those who live in developing countries.

“While working at a 3D printing makerspace in Rwanda, we observed the high cost of importing 3D printer filament to the country. A standard roll of 1kg filament can retail for over $60 in the country, whereas the same filament can be purchased elsewhere in the world for a fraction of that price. In turn, 3D printers sit unused in these spaces,” explains Owais.

Using the custom bottle cutter mechanism, the user cuts a plastic bottle into a continuous strip, which is then fed into the Polyformer extruder. After the filament is extruded from the nozzle, it is cooled and wrapped around the spool, which can then be inserted into any FDM 3D printer. Polyformer is an open-source project with all CAD, code and building instructions available on the team’s discord website. It was designed so it could be put together by makers with a manual.

“We want people from around the world to be able to access Polyformer, which is why we’ve made it open to all,” said Cheng. “We’ve also designed it so that you can use a 3D printer to print many parts of the machine, or if desired, purchase the parts as needed.”

There are about 1,500 people inside the Polyformer community around the world, and about 30+ machines that have been built in countries like Rwanda, Argentina, Spain, France, Germany, Mexico, Paraguay, Canada and the USA.

The Polyformer team will use the prize money to deploy several Polyformers and Polyformer-Lites at their partner makerspaces in Rwanda. With these machines, local students, designers and makers will have access to low-cost 3D printer filament, all while keeping plastic bottles out of potential landfill.

The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology and the Foundation’s work encourage aspiring engineers and problem solvers, to apply their knowledge and discover new ways to improve lives through technology. To date, James and the James Dyson Foundation have contributed over £140m to boundary-breaking concepts in education and other charitable causes.

This includes £12m to Imperial College London to create the Dyson School of Design Engineering, and £8m to Cambridge University to create the Dyson Centre for Engineering Design and the James Dyson Building.

At school level, the James Dyson Foundation provides free educational resources. This includes its most recent launch, Engineering Solutions: Air Pollution: introducing young people to air pollution and engineering’s role in finding solutions.

The Foundation also supports medical research and the local community in Malmesbury where Dyson’s UK offices are based. Last summer, the Dyson Cancer Centre at Royal United Hospitals in Bath broke ground, and the Foundation continues to support the Race Against Dementia Dyson Fellow, Dr Claire Durrant, in accelerating finding better treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.