There have been more and more threats to our environment as the years go by. With global warming on the rise, everyone should be aware and cautious of how they contribute to the changing of their carbon footprint.
3D printing should be no exception. Therefore, we must ask ourselves, is 3D printing environmentally friendly?
The high electricity consumption and the use of toxic chemicals in 3d printing are environmentally damaging, however, these drawbacks can be overcome by using renewable energy sources and eco-friendly filaments.
For more on electricity usage, check out our post on How Much Does 3D Printing Increase Your Electric Bill? 3D Print Pricing Factors
- What Is Being ‘Environmentally Friendly’?
- How Is 3D Printing Not Environmentally Friendly?
- How Can 3D Printing Be Environmentally Friendly?
- Some Examples of Environmentally Friendly 3D Printing Alternatives:
What Is Being ‘Environmentally Friendly’?
To first consider the problem, we must be aware of what actually means to be ‘environmentally friendly’.
Being eco-friendly literally means that you be aware of what is problematic for the environment and that you avoid causing harm to it.
For example, using renewable sources of energy like solar or wind instead of burning fossil fuels helps reduce the emission of toxic chemicals. This is helpful for the environment.
When it comes to 3D printing, it is just as important to understand the impact the process has on the environment.
How Is 3D Printing Not Environmentally Friendly?
Some of the critical aspects of 3D printing bring more harm than good to nature, involving human and animal lives as well as the surrounding environment.
Check out our post on Why Are People Scared Of 3D Printing? Myths, Facts! Potential Ethical & Legal Issues
While it might not be obvious, your energy consumption is directly related to environmental problems such as the release of CO2.
For instance, if you use less power, the power plants would need to generate lesser electricity. This, in turn, means fewer fossil fuels will have to be burned and it will reduce the number of toxic fumes released.
According to an article, some research was carried out by the ATKINS Project to test the electricity comparison between subtractive and additive manufacturing.
The article says, “to produce the same object of the same weight, some 3D printing processes require 50 to 100 times more electrical energy than injection molding machine.”
There was also another test done to find out the power consumption of the Makerbot Replicator+ (source). The average ranged from 43 and 182.4 watts.
Though this is still less than many household appliances, (like a 100W incandescent light bulb or a 50W Laptop) it is still something to consider since it takes many hours to print even one object.
When more and more businesses, individuals, and large-scale manufacturers are adopting 3D printing for production, there is more and more electrical energy being consumed and higher chances of environmental damage.
It is no secret that plastic is extremely problematic to the environment. Firstly, it is said to last forever since it is very resilient. It is also one of the major products of fracking – which is already being debated on whether it is suitable or not for the environment.
Small plastic parts that pollute land and sea also negatively effect and often kill wildlife. It does not help that plastic is easily present everywhere and it cannot be recycled or reused because it becomes poisonous.
Microplastics are another concern. These tiny plastics can be get to everywhere in the environment, in animals, in the oceans, and even in our bodies.
Recently, it was found that microfibers (a type of microplastic) are getting shed when we wash our clothes. These can potentially, enter the ocean and gather some poisonous chemicals with themselves and, possibly, enter our food chain.
The type of filaments used for 3D printing is mostly thermoplastics. Thermoplastics are a type of plastic polymer that have two states: liquid when it is melted and solid when it is frozen.
Since they are a type of plastic, thermoplastics also contribute to the ongoing plastic pollution crisis.
Manufacturing, for example, 3D printed plastic bottles – though economically beneficial – is still a cause of nuisance for our environment.
The thermoplastics can be heated, melted, and frozen multiple times, to acquire any shape.
Because of the repeated and intense heating of these polymers, most of them tend to release toxic chemicals into the air. If this worries you, you will probably find this article we wrote quite interesting Is 3D Printing Poisonous?.
The air pollution caused by these materials adversely affects the environment. They usually produce a bad smell and release harmful emissions that can irritate your eyes and nose.
In severe cases, the poison can reach your lungs and impair respiratory function. (Source)
Although 3D printing is supposed to be a less expensive and energy-efficient process, it is still not enough to ignore the harmful effects produced during manufacturing. 3d prints may also produce carbon monoxide. Check out our post How Much Carbon Monoxide Does 3D Printing Emit? Here Is What You Should Do About it!
How Can 3D Printing Be Environmentally Friendly?
Despite some of the negative aspects, 3D printing is moving towards a more sustainable and eco-friendly future.
Though it is still in its early stages, 3D printing is in the middle of developing and growing towards the greener option.
Subtractive VS. Additive Manufacturing:
Traditional mass manufacturing relies on subtractive techniques. In this process, the finished product is made by cutting down or ‘subtracting’ from the raw block of material.
Additive manufacturing, which is the 3D printing method, does not ‘cut’ the object from a block. Rather, it 3D prints layers of melted thermoplastics or metals from a source to match the particular CAD model.
For example, if a company is making metal spoons through the subtractive method; a block of metal would have to go through drilling, electrical discharge machining (EMD), laser cutting, etc., to get the required form. Afterward, the leftover metal will get discarded.
On the contrary, if it were the additive method, the spoons would be printed from the supplied filament, layer by layer. This way, there is no spare material that will go wasted.
Using the additive method, 3D printing is more environmentally friendly than the traditional way since the materials are used up efficiently and there is no wastage of supplies that are not recycled or reused.
Also, check out if 3D Printed Houses / Structures are Sustainable?
Environmentally Friendly Filaments:
Though plastics are really bad for the environment since they decompose extremely slowly in nature, many companies are coming out with biodegradable thermoplastics for 3D printing.
An international 3D filament making company, Polymaker, recently released an ‘eco-friendly 3D printing filament’ called PolyTerra PLA.
PolyTerra PLA is like the regular PLA filament, except it has reduced plastic in it. It prints faster and is stronger than normal PLA. The company has also promised to plant a tree for every spool they sell.
Similarly, Terrafilum Engineered Filaments is another group that is developing and selling eco-friendly filaments. They even have the option for you to send them back any unused material for recycling.
Recycled filaments are another great way of reducing environmental harm. For instance, all those failed prototypes that you cannot make use of anymore can be recycled to make other products.
Also, it is very important to know how to properly dispose of any 3D printing scrappage during and after the process. If you cannot recycle the leftover material, make sure to discard it in a way that is not dangerous for the environment.
Some Examples of Environmentally Friendly 3D Printing Alternatives:
- This plant-based; bioplastic filament called BioPE that is “100% recyclable.”
- This team called 3D Brooklyn recycles plastic chip bags to make a 3D printing filament.
- A 3D printing filament made of hemp. Another one made of coffee.
- Using a solar powered 3D printing system for sustainable energy consumption.
- Building a 3D printer enclosure to reduce and control harmful emissions.
- The sustainable construction of the TECLA eco-habitat by WASP (World Advanced Saving Project) – created from completely reusable and recyclable materials.
- The Bluesint PA12 polymer powder is 100% recyclable.
- Use the extra filament lying around to create something unique and new, like this whale toy.
Though 3D printing is more sustainable than additive manufacturing, it still has a lot to grow in order to be more environmentally friendly.
The increasing power consumption of 3D printers paired with how long it takes to print an item; 3D printing can be responsible for negatively impacting the environment by placing an additional burden on power plants.
Since the common raw source for 3D printing anything is thermoplastics, it does not help the already present plastic pollution the world is facing.
The non-compostable plastic and the toxic emissions further contribute to the negative ecology.
Despite this, there are some aspects to 3D printing that are trying to reduce the negative impact on the environment, such as reducing waste and innovative biodegradable thermoplastics. These creative sustainable methods also provide an opportunity for creators to recycle their filaments and 3D printed objects.