How Eco-Friendly Is 3D Printing?
 |  Anastasia Misiuk

How E-co Friendly is Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing today allows you to make almost whatever you want, whenever you want it. 3D printing has been named the technology of the future. There is no visible waste and no need for warehouses, stores, packaging, and transportation. So, no bad environmental impact, no air pollution, and tons of plastic wasted? Sounds fantastic right? Let’s find how environmentally friendly 3D printing in fact is!

Energy usage

3D printing is called energy-hungry and claimed to use more energy than drilling and milling machines. To find out if it’s truly a team of researchers at Loughborough University in the UK did their own study called the “Atkins Project”. During the study, they printed similar objects using different technologies. It turned out that some 3D printing processes used 50-100 times more electricity than injection molding machines.

Researchers also considered the manufacturing process, raw materials used, the location of the manufacturer and transportation mode used for distribution to find out what is the overall carbon footprint compared to the traditional manufacturing process

Bad news: 3D printing didn’t have the lowest carbon output at every step of the supply chain.

At the material production stage, additive manufacturing is really better. In 3D printing, less material is used and less waste is produced overall. There are 3D models that need support materials which are removed after the printing process. The wastage goes up in case of models that need a lot of support material. Nevertheless, even considering support materials and by-products waste, 3D printed products maybe around 50% lighter than traditionally manufactured.

Filament

Plastic filament remains the most popular and the majority of widely used filaments are eco-unfriendly, hardly reusable and sometimes even toxic. Not only this is a problem with low-cost materials and desktop 3D printing. High-end printers leave many wasted plastic sub-products. However, there are options for how to deal with the plastic problem and we’ll look into it later.

During the 3D printing process, plastic is heating, melting and may generate toxic fumes. While the whole amount of plastic used during the production process is still significantly smaller compared to traditional manufacturing, the same luckily applies to the amount of fume produced during printing.  

There are two main used plastic types in 3D printing: ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and PLA (is polylactic acid). These are ‘thermoplastics,’ which melt and mold easily. The corn-based eco-friendly plastic, PLA, is a renewable type of thermoplastic material. PLA is currently the most popular choice over other 3D printing materials because it produces less toxic emissions and less waste during the printing stage and performs better at the end of a product’s life cycle.

What green alternatives are there?

Ideally, earth-friendly enthusiasts dream of 3D printing becoming circular technology.

Print  - collect wasted material -  recycle - produce filament - print.

Precious Plastic project already showed that it’s possible to transform recycled plastic bottles into a new spool of printing materials. This example points us to using more eco-waste in printing.

Another point of focus is about ethics and consciousness, moving away from cheap and toxic materials that cause pollution to ethical recyclable biodegradable and environmentally friendly filament. Fairtrade recycled materials will naturally be a good solution.

Many 3D printing hobbyists, especially beginners consider different materials equal when it comes to the outcome, but let’s take a closer look. Using better materials will help to reduce energy use, decrease waste and toxic fumes, reduce resource use.

There is more and more different filament being developed and we can look for earth-friendly bio-plastics, powders resins wax, and acrylates in the nearest future.

How can I be more eco-friendly with my printing?

  • Don’t throw away the leftover filament, connect the leftovers into one spool, and start printing colorful designs.
  • Print objects with hollow parts which need less material and print faster. Complex parts may need support materials, but the printing process will still be faster and generate less waste.
  • Lay tall parts on their side to speed up the printing process and reduce or eliminate the need for support materials.
  • And for printers that have a good-sized print bed, or print platform, it’s possible to print several parts in one hit.

An earth-friendly world is something everyone’s talking about and many of us dream these days. But in 2019 we’re a long way off from achieving realistic goals in protecting the environment in a major way.

3D printing is an area that looks promising going forward, but more research is needed to be done. Right now, it’s not the perfect solution to clean manufacturing, but it could be very soon.