How do you make 3D printing environmentally sustainable?

As 3D printing becomes more advanced, its practical applications appear to be limitless. This technology can go as far as our imaginations will allow, from artwork and toys to complete structures and even transplantable organs. While 3D printing is most intriguing for businesses trying to expedite their prototyping processes, its potential for non-tech consumers is rising and evolving. Is 3D printing, however, environmentally friendly?

Let’s have a look at how 3D printing works. Consider the foundations of a 3D printer: a robot-controlled hot glue gun that utilizes plastic instead of glue. Plastic strands are fed into a heated print head, which melts the material. The print head moves in three dimensions and drops plastic lines onto the print bed, which is the table on which it prints. The printer repeats this process, building up layers of plastic until a 3D component is formed.

So here’s the tricky part. 3D printing has a couple of issues from a sustainability standpoint.

Thermoplastic is commonly used in 3D printing, and while it is not the most environmentally friendly material, it can easily be recycled. There are already various machines on the market that recycle thermoplastics for use in 3D printers, such as material from unsuccessful prototypes. However, because recycled plastic becomes more fragile the more it is recycled, users may be afraid to attempt it. Recycling technology are being improved by the industry.

3D printers need a lot of energy. How much power do 3D printers consume? Cooling fans, internal electronics, the hot end, stepper motors, and a heated build platform are the major components of a 3D printer that runs on electricity (if your printer has one).

When compared to using a dryer at home (which is generally one of the most energy-intensive household products), it utilizes 3300 watts on average. To put it another way, 3D printers use energy, but if you offset this energy with other activities in your life, it’s all good.

When you 3D print, your printer releases extremely small particles into the air that might be dangerous if inhaled. Heating plastic releases hazardous gases, which differ based on the type of material you’re printing with. When ABS is printed, it has a heavier odor, but new PLA materials are believed to have a much weaker odor when heated.

There will be waste. Although this material is often required to rescue the entire print from damage, you should not need supports to print a design effectively. This is why some 3D designers produce models that aren’t supported. They’re not only inconvenient to remove, but they’re also wasteful. The majority of discarded plastic material ends up in the trash. And unfortunately all this waste does add up. Most of us have no idea what to do with our unsuccessful prints, so we throw them away. It’s not that we don’t want to recycle them; it’s just that we don’t know how to recycle/compost them.

Before we go over the options, it’s important to distinguish between biodegradable and compostable as there is a lot of buzz around new filament materials that are compostable.

To be biodegradable, something must show indications of breaking down in nature until microorganisms digest it and it returns to the ground, according to the FTC’s Green Guide. This process must take place within a reasonable amount of time after disposal. When something is simply degradable, it indicates it will break down into smaller bits without being digested by microorganisms.

In a given environment, the substance will also biodegrade fully. Certain characteristics will be present in compostable plastic. At the same pace as paper, the substance degrades into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass. In a compost pile, the material completely decomposes. There are no harmful residues, and the compost promotes plant growth.

So, which strands can be composted and which cannot? ABS and PLA are the most commonly used filaments for 3D printing. ABS is a thermoplastic with excellent strength and durability, making it ideal for 3D printing. Although this substance is not biodegradable or compostable, it can be recycled in other ways, for as by re-heating it and using it in a filament recycler.

Some PLA can be composted, but it must be done at a precise temperature and in a specified atmosphere. It’s made of cornstarch, sugar cane, and tapioca root, and it’s designed to be absorbed by microbes. Experts advise Makers not to put PLA in the recycle bin since it can biodegrade throughout the process. Composting your PLA in an industrial facility is one method. It is not recommended to compost PLA at home because the conditions under which it composts are quite sensitive.

Another path toward more environmentally friendly 3D printing processes has recently been discovered. It involves the use of plant-based materials that are biodegradable and renewable, rather than petroleum-based products.

Corn is one of the two basic polymers used in 3D printing. PLA is a prominent material in the industry since it is biodegradable, renewable, non-toxic, and produces little waste. Companies are creating even better renewable materials to replace PLA, which is unsuitable for many applications due to its low melt temperature.

Engineers at MIT have also recently devised a method for using cellulose as an alternative 3D printing material, which they say will be stronger and more cost-effective than today’s petroleum-based polymers. The researchers employed cellulose acetate, added a sodium hydroxide treatment for increased strength, and used an antibacterial color, which could make this material appealing to the food and health industries.

Filaments like Willow Flex are compostable according to EU and US regulations, while others, like 3DB, are manufactured from recycled materials. rooklyn’s line of recycled potato chip bags and milk carton filaments. Beer filament from 3DOM USA is created from a waste byproduct of the brewing process. It’s nice to see new environmentally friendly filament materials on the market, but it’s unclear how best to dispose of them.

Soybean oil is used to make AnyCubic’s Eco UV resin. It’s easy to file, sand, and paint. It will not degrade in normal indoor use. Outside, however, it will decompose. It will decompose into organic components if you leave it alone for long enough. You can dispose of failed or unwanted prints in your composter or garbage, knowing that they will decompose naturally.

Ekocycle was created by, who was previously the creative director of 3D printer firm 3D Systems, and Coca-Cola. The Ekocycle is a 3D printer that uses a 3D filament created in part from recycled plastic bottles (25 percent). Ekocycle will be able to 3D print things with a build volume of 100 cubic centimeters and a layer thickness of 70 microns at a minimum.

ABS plastic can be recycled, despite the fact that it is not biodegradable. Because ABS is a “thermoplastic” (as opposed to a “termoset”), you can re-heat it to use as filament after it has already been heated. Plastic household garbage and failed prints can be ground up and turned into filament by filament recyclers. The Filamaker is a filament grinder that breaks down used prints, while the Filabot and Recyclebot are filament extruders that recycle used filament and manufacture fresh filament.

ReDeTec launched an Indiegogo campaign for the ProtoCycler, a machine that grinds old prints and extrudes filament all in one unit. This is a fantastic technique to repurpose spare filament from unsuccessful prints or small bits of filament that would otherwise be thrown away. It’s crucial not to mix different types of filaments while using a filament recycling. It’s possible that combining different types of polymers will result in unsatisfactory printing results.

There is no doubt that 3D printing is the future. The question is how can we make the process more environmentally sustainably while we use it to improve the way we live.

Check out my related post: Have you used 3Doodler Start 3D printing pen?

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