How sustainable and environmentally friendly is 3D Printing?

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How sustainable and environmentally friendly is 3D Printing?

3d printing is environmentally friendly

In our line of work, we get asked a lot of questions. Many of these questions come from clients or potential clients about where we “stand” on certain issues, like 3D printing, drones or autonomous vehicles. Unlike many agencies, who are perfectly happy to adjust their sails depending on where the wind (or paycheck) is blowing, our team at FTI is made up of experts from across the technology field, and as such, our opinions are not only informed, but also the result of much discussion between us.

Lately, we’ve been asked a lot about the scalability of 3D printing and whether it really is as environmentally friendly as its proponents maintain it to be. Indeed, there are those who claim 3D printing is actually harmful environmentally speaking, and who go to certain lengths of logic to prove that point.

At FTI, we realize the argument can be “spun” quite convincingly either way.

The knee jerk reaction for those on the “3D printing is bad” side of the fence is that ubiquitous 3D printing will lead to more people producing more rubbish, and that the resins being used are not exactly non-toxic, and not as easy as 3D printing firms would have you believe they are to be recycled.

We personally, however, remain far more convinced of the positive environmental impact of 3D printing, and here’s why.

1. 3D printing of quality and at scale will mean a huge reduction in the transportation of products

Most of the products we use and buy everyday have been shipped back and forth between continents when the raw material for them was gathered, refined, turned into parts, assembled into products and brought to points of sale. The logistics behind a single product is incredibly complex and all those thousands of miles create a huge environmental footprint.

3D printing localizes product creation and thereby reduces that footprint. So, for example, in an ideal world you could browse the Ikea catalog and have the product you want 3D printed at the Office Depot next door… though that’s clearly a few years off.

Still, the promise of 3D printing is that when products are made where they’re bought, we would only need to transport raw materials, instead of ready-made products. Raw materials can be packed more efficiently than a packaged product, which makes transporting them more cost effective, and requires less boats/trucks/packaging etc.

Raw materials also have a “due date.” For example the next iPhone won’t turn last season’s aluminum into a low-interest or unwanted product. Printing service places won’t have to worry about their stock turning old or overstocking. And since surplus is also a big environmental problem.. that brings us to the next point of why 3D can be better for sustainability:

2. Less unsold products
The garden furniture you own isn’t unique and wasn’t the only set of its kind produced. I’m willing to bet there were probably dozens or hundreds left at the store after you bought yours. Some of them never sold (more than you think, actually). The same goes for pretty much everything you own. When companies bring products to market, they are doing so on predicted demand, and they supply accordingly. Stores that sell products make similar predictions. When those predictions are off, the unsold products find their way to the dump (or recycling if we’re VERY lucky, or if the company has a financial interest in doing so.)

3D printing is the opposite of mass production, so while, yes, it’s a bit more of a hassle to print your own garden table, it’s printed for a purpose and won’t be left on a shelf to gather dust.

This, incidentally, also has really positive commercial repercussions for stores who no longer have to shell out for massive inventory. It’s great for increased profitability! “Produce only what’s needed” is good both environmentally and financially.
Speaking of waste… 3D printing means…

3. Less wasted materials
3D printing is often referred to as “additive manufacturing” for a reason. In the printing process products are built layer upon layer. Only the raw material that is needed to create the product, is used.

At the other side of the spectrum is CNC drilling or “machining”. Here, a block of raw material, like aluminum for example, is given to the machine which simply removes (or chisels away) all that is not wanted in the final shape. This results in a lot of scrap. Metals like aluminum can be melted back to usable blocks, but still, this process requires a lot of energy and logistics, reducing its environmental friendliness.

4. Get more life out of your stuff
Say your toasters lever breaks. The electronics are fine. It works, but there’s no easy way to turn it on anymore. Ever tried to find a spare part for a toaster? Typically that’s more of a hassle than just buying a new toaster, which is wasteful.

3D printing, however, is perfect for replacement parts. Indeed, so much of our stuff breaks in tiny ways all the time, that increasing the life-span of the products we own by fixing them ourselves with spare parts we print is excellent for the environment – especially as there’s so much energy tied to the products we already have.

5. 3D printing makes recycling easier

Typically, the hardest part in recycling a product is disassembling and separating it into the raw materials it was made from.

Today’s 3D printed products are (currently) made from single raw material. Recycling single-material-products is exponentially easier than recycling products made up of various different materials. Being easy makes it cost effective and when there’s possibility for financial gain, someone will do it. Hopefully many people will do it.

There are also a whole bunch of startups working to create shredders for home use. So if your 3D print didn’t turn out the way you wanted, just throw it into the shredder and it will be turned back into printing material. We’re also seeing shredders that can turn ABS and PLA plastics from milk containers and such into 3D printing raw material. Mass scale plastic recycling is also just around the corner.

For home/hobbyist 3D printers, there’s also possibility to use biodegradable materials.

6. Less Toxicity
Let’s address the toxicity issue, because the anti-3D printing lobby likes to bring that up a lot. It is true that 3D printing uses some toxic chemicals, but here’s the thing; they are not particularly toxic. Indeed, the resin feedstock of most 3D printers contains all sorts of the normal toxins you find in plastics, anyway. Some of the post-processing you do on 3D prints, such as removing support structures, can involve mildly toxic or hazardous materials, but nothing that’s difficult to handle, or any more toxic than the ‘E-waste’ your paper printer and laptop are probably producing.

All in all, while 3D printing may yet have a way to go in terms of making itself as efficient and scalable as possible, it is not, as some try to frame it, bad for the environment, even in its current state. As the technology improves, so too will the sustainability of it. We believe in the promise of 3D printing, and we think it will have an incredible effect on world markets over the next decade or so.

Sylvie Barak
As a former tech and hardware reporter, ex-military spokesperson and digital content specialist, Sylvie drives much of the sector’s most front-line work with reporters and key online audiences. An excellent writer and tactician, she also brings many of our campaigns to life.

1 Comment

  1.' Ian Williams says:

    All excellent points and there’s another one I’d like to add. 3D printing enables designs that are extremely difficult or simply not possible with traditional manufacturing techniques – designs that are stronger and lighter, but use far less material. As a simple example, imagine a previously solid tube being replaced by a hollow one, with internal struts to reinforce it based on the stresses it experiences in its specific application – so it’s just as strong, but uses 60 – 80 per cent less material, making it lighter, cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Product design and testing tools are increasingly incorporating 3D printing elements to enable precisely this kind design development.

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