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Is 3D Printing Good for the Environment?

By Mitch

December 14th, 2023


Hands placed around a green globe and surrounded by plastic waste
Is 3D Printing Good for the Environment? We hope to answer that question


A pretty loaded quation given the current state of the planet!


In this article we’ll be looking at the environmental impact that 3D printing has and will have in terms of recycling and using sustainable materials. We’ll then hopefully conclude  that 3D printing is good for the environment.


First though, we may need to defend the stance on 3D printing being environmentally friendly and there’s a lot of misconceptions which may harm our case. Let’s then look at some of the things that are believed to be wrong with 3D printing and how it can adversely affect the environment. We can then take a counter stance against all the allegations and see where we land.


The Case for the Prosecution


An underwater view of many discarded plastic items
Single use plastics are polluting the world's oceans

“3D printing is adding to the world’s plastic problem”


The world is becoming a dumping ground for the millions of tonnes of plastic waste that is produced every year. The environmental impact of this is seen in the decline in marine life and pollution to inland waterways and drinking water supplies.


“3D printed items are just future landfill”


It’s believed that people are using 3D printers more and more for printing toys and models at home. These will then go the same way as store bought toys when the owner either grows out of them, gets bored with them or runs out of space to keep them. They’ll then just throw them away as they can’t recycle them.


“Toxic fumes are affecting the air quality”


There is a perception that 3D printing uses harmful and toxic chemicals and that these are being released into the environment and causing air pollution.


“Resins and other printing chemicals are being poured into the drainage system”


Left over or expired 3D printing resin is not being disposed of properly and just poured down the sink or into the drain. This is the same for any cleaning or washing chemicals used in the printing process and is causing pollution to the water supply and aquatic life.


“3D printers use a lot of energy and leave a huge carbon footprint”


The belief is that 3D printers are using a lot of electricity and putting power supplies under pressure. This extra power drain is also increasing carbon emissions from the power plants having to produce more electricity.


These are just a few of the allegations that are levied against 3D printing as both a hobby and industry. The prosecution now rests it’s case so now it’s time to hear the other side of the debate.


The Case for the Defence


A model globe being held against the sun
3D printing can save the world!


The defence will answer each of the allegations directly.


“3D printing is adding to the world’s plastic problem”


3D printing is in fact helping to reduce the production of single use plastics by producing reusable drinking vessels and food containers. Many 3D printing filaments are also made from natural materials such as PLA (Polylactic Acid) which is made from fermented corn starch, cassava, maize, sugarcane or sugar beet pulp. The fermentation produces the lactic acid which is then used to form PLA. This type of filament is probably one of the most used in the world so is not adding to the plastic problem as it isn’t technically a plastic.


“3D printed items are just future landfill”


PLA for instance is plant based as we’ve established so is fully biodegradable. Although its true that a lot of 3D printed models may be discarded, the environmental impact is far less than if a store bought plastic model or toy is thrown away. Other materials are used in 3D printing such as PETG and ABS are fully recyclable so if disposed of in the correct manner, won’t see a landfill at the end of their use.


“Toxic fumes are affecting the air quality”


Unfortunately 3D printing does have its risks relating to fumes and toxicity. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s a hazard to the environment as a whole but more to the user who is working in close proximity. The issue of fumes therefore is one that can be fairly easily guarded against by using good ventilation and air filtration systems. The latter will collect any toxic particles that may be in the air and prevent them from either being breathed in by the user or released into the larger environment.


“Resins and other printing chemicals are being poured into the drainage system”

Again, this is a difficult one to defend but this issue is hopefully down to a very small minority of users and companies. All 3D printing resins and associated chemicals carry warnings against improper disposal and there are laws in most countries to protect against this. Unfortunately it will still happen but hopefully to a very small degree.


“3D printers use a lot of energy and leave a huge carbon footprint”


3D printers in fact have a very low power consumption and can run for hours and even days at a time using a barely noticeable amount of electricity. Of course, the more printers that an individual or company uses at any one time will have an effect on this but the offset to this would be the production of items such as those mentioned earlier which are reducing single use plastic waste.


The Verdict

The question we asked at the start of this article was is 3D printing good for the environment? Both sides of the debate have now been put forward but as the question is being defended, we think the final summing up should be ours.


3D printing has grown as both a hobby and an industry over the last 30-40 years. However, its only been in the last 10-15 years that there has been a boom and the 3D printing industry as a whole has benefited from this. It could therefore be said that there is bound to be an impact on the environment with the increased production of machines and materials along with transportation of these commodities to various parts of the consumer world. This may be the case, but it’s our contention that these impacts are offset by the good that 3D printing is doing for the environment and in turn the future of The Earth.


Therefore, 3D printing is good for the environment as it is doing the following:


  • Reducing the production of single use plastics

  • Using recyclable and plant based materials

  • Producing practical and useful items at a fraction of the cost of a production line.

  • Using less energy in making these items

  • Producing 3D printed items such as affordable housing and prosthetics which can be used to help people in poorer areas of the world


These things and more are what shows that 3D can hopefully help to provide a better future for everyone.


The final verdict therefore isn’t one of guilty or not guilty but one of assurance that 3D printing is good for the environment.

 

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