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Is 3D Printing Actually Environmentally Friendly?

Is 3D Printing Actually Environmentally Friendly?

3D printing is gaining traction as a viable, consumer-focused alternative to conventional manufacturing methods. Along with the development of this incredible technology, there is increasing focus being placed on 3D printing's environmental friendliness and sustainability. Despite all the good publicity, the question remains--is it really that good for the environment?

For both industrial and personal use, 3D printing has garnered notable attention for its ease of use, ability for personalization, and potential as an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional manufacturing. 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) is considered a less wasteful process than conventional manufacturing because material is added to itself to produce a part, rather than cut from another material, which necessarily produces waste. Some 3D printing materials are also touted as biodegradable, leading many to believe this technology is “green.”

Within the next 30 years, additive manufacturing processes can save up to 90% of the raw material needed for manufacturing, according to a European Commission study, depending on how widely used it becomes. Further, the U.S. Department of Energy reports that, compared to traditional manufacturing, additive manufacturing could cut waste and material costs by nearly the same amount and reduce manufacturing energy use in half.

These statistics highlight how important it may be for businesses to start relying on 3D printing rather than conventional manufacturing process and indicate how consumer use of these materials can lessen reliance on existing plastics manufacturing, which is generally considered by the scientific community to be a massive negative influence on the environment.

While 3D printing processes appears to be a hopeful approach for lessening these problems, the current state of this technology may not be up to the task quite yet. This article goes over everything you need to know about the environmental impacts of 3D printing at industrial and personal scales.

Is 3D Printing Actually Environmentally Friendly?

Why worry about 3D printing and the environment?

By now, it is well known globally that sustainable and “green” technologies are needed to lessen the significant impact anthropogenic activity (including building, resource extraction, fossil fuel burning, and heavy chemical use) has had on our planet. It’s easy to see this as a problem bigger than our personal choices—in fact, only 100 companies are responsible for up to 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. So, why are we writing about this on a hobby blog?

One of the major reasons people turn to 3D printing is customizable, on-demand, and accessible manufacturing to meet their personal needs. As this technology becomes more accessible, we can begin to personally disinvest from large-scale plastics companies, particularly for hobby interests such as costume making and game accessories. Some of us are uniquely poised to meet community needs as small business owners or makers that sell products directly to consumers, creating smaller, more sustainable networks. 3D printing might not save the world, but we can push for more companies to use this technology and make informed decisions with our own tools to lessen the impact of working with plastics on our immediate environments.

Circular flow chart showing the relationships among various industrial sectors in developing a circular economy.

(Source: Sustainable Global Resources Ltd. Recycling Council of Ontario)

Circular economies as a primary environmental consideration

One of the primary considerations held by scientists trying to address the climate crisis is that waste and pollution management must be addressed with the same urgency as the development of renewable or “green” technologies.

We are seeing growing trends away from the use­–discard model of consumption both on industrial and community scales, with a growing focus on repairing, reusing, reselling, recycling, and composting rather than trashing a used item.

Several nations globally have reported sustainable development goals to make all plastic packaging recyclable within the next few decades. While recycling is not a perfect process and will not solve all our environmental problems, it is a crucial step in reducing the accumulation of waste, which disproportionately affects less developed areas used as dump sites.

So, what does this have to do with 3D printing? A recent study found that consumer thermoplastics used in plastic packaging can function as a low-cost and sustainable feedstock for 3D printing materials. Depending on your area, you may even be able to find a local company that reuses plastic waste as a raw material for filament manufacturing.

The circular economy model is just one aspect of how we can aspire to leverage 3D printing to limit the harmful impacts of our contemporary practices on the environment. Below, we cover a few other potential benefits associated with 3D printing as well as the current limitations of this technology.

How can 3D printing help the environment?

Lower material costs and less waste

As we noted earlier, additive manufacturing refers to the addition of material onto itself to produce a part, rather than being removed from an existing piece of raw material. This specificity in design produces significantly less waste and leads to lower material costs (thus requiring less extractive damage to the environment per part made). When parts are made to order, there is less potential waste, and the careful design process that goes into producing 3D printed parts limits the risk of “offprints” on a large scale as is expected with conventional manufacturing.

Moreover, because all parts can be made from similar types of lightweight filament, the transport costs, including fuel, required to transport material for manufacturing are far lower per manufactured unit.

Is 3D Printing Actually Environmentally Friendly?

Ease of repairing existing items

If you have your own 3D printer, there is a good chance that you have come across .stl files for a variety of simple repair parts, such as a strap buckle or battery covers for remotes. If the average consumer can easily produce parts to maintain older appliances or use items that would otherwise go to waste owing to a single small part being broken, the longevity of purchased items can increase significantly. The increased accessibility to modeling tools and knowledge has even allowed engineers and dedicated hobbyists to design parts that have been off the market for many years.

Metal additive manufacturing technologies, such as laser metal deposition, can be used to repair damaged metal parts for cases in which traditional repair methods are not suitable or available. This has seen a notable benefit in larger scale industrial applications, such as aerospace and energy materials manufacturing.

Local manufacturing

3D printers are becoming increasingly common, with universities, libraries, and consumers being able to keep at least a desktop machine. As more and more communities have access to 3D printers, there is a huge potential for lessening reliance on shipping tools, parts, and hobby materials from halfway across the globe.

This access is particularly important when global factory supply chains are disrupted, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic. In many areas, local companies with 3D printers were able to produce face masks, respirator parts, and personal protective equipment for community members and frontline health workers.

Is 3D Printing Actually Environmentally Friendly?

Limitations of 3D printing as a sustainable manufacturing technology

Because of the benefits listed above as well as the growing number of companies labeling their materials as “biodegradable,” additive manufacturing is considered fairly “green.” However, this technology still has a long way to go before being truly environmentally benign and sustainable.

One of the biggest challenges associated with 3D printing is waste management, including offprints, supports, waste filament, used liquid resins and plastic powders, and metal printing byproducts.

There are few studies on the waste produced by 3D printing. While the efficiency of design and use associated with 3D printing can have significant benefits on waste production from traditional manufacturing, the increasing accessibility of this technology can lead to more and more people using this technology—potentially uncritical of their waste and use. A survey by Filamentive reported that up to 8 million kilos of 3D printed plastic waste was generated in 2020.

Lack of industrial recycling and the myth of “biodegradability”

A very popular 3D printing filament, PLA (polylactic acid), is a biodegradable thermoplastic material that is produced using natural renewable resources such as corn stalk or sugar cane. However, owing to its structure, it cannot simply be thrown into your house compost bin—it is only industrially compostable.

Moreover, “biodegradable” refers to the simple process of a material degrading over time in environmental conditions, but this does not actually indicate environmental friendliness. Plastics that break up into microplastics that chemically leach into the environment over 150 years can technically be labeled “biodegradable” despite causing tangible damage to soil and waterways.

Because additive manufacturing products require specific recycling measures to manage, closed loop manufacturing is still far from accessible. Currently, only a few companies produce plastic filaments from recycled plastic waste, and the machines required to do this are not widely accessible.

Some plastics are even more difficult to recycle than PLA, and others are not recyclable at all. Petroleum-based plastics such as ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) are fabricated using oil extraction and refinement practices, making them unsustainable.

Resin disposal

Resin used for SLA printing is considered hazardous waste in liquid form and unrecyclable plastic waste after printing. Resin parts often require support structures that are removed, thus producing unrecyclable and non-reusable waste.

Energy consumption

3D printers, especially those that reach very high temperatures, use lasers, and have long printing times, require significant electricity. However, the research is scarce on whether additive manufacturing generally uses less than traditional manufacturing because the specific machines and their applications have unique power consumption specifications.

It is generally agreed that the energy savings associated with additive manufacturing at the industrial scale are higher than traditional manufacturing. Much of these energy savings are associated with lower transport costs.

Is 3D Printing Actually Environmentally Friendly?

Why does sustainability matter?

As 3D printing enthusiasts, small business owners, and larger scale manufacturers get more and more recognition, we have more leverage as consumers and makers regarding the technology we use impacts the environment, for better or for worse. Governments around the world are becoming more invested in sustainable technologies, and there are likely to be an increasing number of regulations impacting how manufacturing businesses can operate. This can also lead to incentives and tax breaks for small businesses using sustainable technologies once the research is sufficiently robust.

Is 3D Printing Actually Environmentally Friendly?

Looking toward the future

Although 3D printing has seen massive achievements in the last several years, it is still an emerging industry with new and exciting trends and approaches that set it apart from conventional manufacturing. Additive manufacturing startups and hobbyists are very aware of their potential to offer sustainable alternatives to companies seeking green technologies. Because this technology is highly dependent on emerging online trends, it is more flexible and has greater potential than established manufacturing technologies.

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