3D printing has opened the door to leaner methods of manufacture which makes it more sustainable compared to traditional methods. Being an additive manufacturing process there are immediate benefits, such as a reduction in the amount of material used to create a part, the ability to produce the exact quantity required and the elimination of a supply chain for the transportation of goods. Coupled with the fact that the materials used are recyclable and biodegradable as well, the potential to massively reduce CO2 emissions means that 3D printing is a highly sustainable technology.
But is this necessarily the case?
While yes these benefits are definitely positive for the environment, what impact does the material itself pose? Some of the most commonly used 3D printing materials are in fact recyclable and biodegradable, however, there are some misconceptions users should definitely be aware of. It should be said that this post is not to dissuade anyone from 3D printing, it is to raise awareness to help make more informed decisions when disposing of the material.
How Sustainable is the Material?
Currently, the only material used by Wippit is PLA filament. This material is a natural thermoplastic polymer that is derived from corn starch. Therefore, not only is it a material that can be recycled, but it is also capable of biodegrading too. However, whilst this is correct, there are some caveats. For a start, despite being recyclable, PLA filament is not accepted in domestic waste recycling due to the differences in melting temperature with other plastics. In fact, it is sometimes removed and then thrown into landfill!
With regards to biodegrading PLA is still a material that is fully compostable, however, this is through specific industrial conditions. To facilitate this process, the ground that the material is buried in needs to be of a consistent temperature (55°C - 70°C) as well as having a controlled humidity and also be rich in microorganisms. In addition to this, this is only effective with natural PLA or PLA with little additives. In short, yes PLA is a sustainable material, but to properly dispose of it at its end-of-life requires more than just simply throwing it with your mixed recycling or burying in the ground
So how Should I Treat Material to be Disposed of?
Whether it be support material or a 3D printed product that has been broken, it is still a relatively straightforward process of disposing in a sustainable way (albeit a little more involved). Here are some options to consider:
Use a Filament Recycling Service
Whilst there are not many in existence, there are some companies that will receive your 3D printing waste to appropriately dispose of or even recycle it. If you are a user or a business that creates a large amount of this waste on a regular basis there are other companies that offer a monthly collection service.
Reclaim Waste/Unused Filament
Rather than sending 3D printing and filament waste to external companies to recycle, why not consider purchasing a filament reclamator? This will allow you to shred down the waste and then reform it to make you own home-made recycled filament! Admittedly, despite this being a more expensive and involved option, the ability to make your own filament may reduce the amount of filament that you need to purchase and save you money in the long run.
Create a Composting Environment at Home
Ok, so this is probably the most elaborate option. Out of the companies that offer industrial composting, not all will accept PLA. So if you are up for the challenge you can make your own! This way you can throw your filament away with a clear conscience and know that you’ve done your bit for the environment!
3D printing has been at the forefront of a new age of manufacture. It has allowed an unprecedented level of freedom for creatives to make their ideas a reality. However, as a result, the amount of failed prints, test prints and support material in addition to prints that are disposed of at end-of-life are actively contributing to the plastic crisis. Fortunately, Wippit can help to reduce the amount of filament wasted due to failed prints, as all the print settings are taken care of.
Whilst options are limited at the moment, the infrastructure for the sustainable treatment of 3D printing filament is coming. Yes, there will be times that it is too difficult or even not possible to responsibly dispose of the filament, but until it's in place, we all have to do our best.