For a primer on 3D Printing and to view the first part of this article series, please visit the blog entry here.
After taking a look at the inception and revolution of 3D printing technology, we decided to map the cradle to grave environmental impact of this new burgeoning technology. Read on to see what Sustainability Media was able to unearth from the research and technology available today.
Environmental Impact and Life Cycle Assessment of 3D Printing
Up until recently, the world of 3D printing relied on creating 3D object through a 3D printer like a Makerbot, Kraftwurx, or Cube X 3D. These printers use a variety of materials to create 3D objects, but most commonly PLA and ABS grade plastics is warmed, printed in layers on top of a platform, and cooled to create the finished object in 3D. But with all these objects able to be created at the push of a button, what can be done to minimize environmental waste as 3D printing grows?
Polylactic Acid (PLA) is classified as a bio-degradable polymer which is derived from corn. Like other food stuff and grain derived bio-degradable packaging materials PLA uses less energy to manufacture than other plastics, less than half of the energy it takes to manufacture traditional plastics. The production of PLA based plastics also boasts an lower output of greenhouse gasses than traditional plastics, about one third of the greenhouse gasses produced in the making of traditional plastic make up the carbon footprint of PLA manufacturing products which make the case that it is more environmentally friendly. However, when examining the environmental and sustainable footprint of any product, a cradle to grave approach is best. Since PLA plastic manufacturing is dependent on corn production, and usually PLA plastics are made from GMO corn, output of nitrogen into soil and production costs of corn crops must be taken into account. Add to this that efforts to end world hunger could utilize this food stuff output to provide meals to those facing hunger, instead of manufacturing plastic for packaging, and the environmental footprint of PLA plastic begins to grow a tad larger than its traditional plastic cousins. Still, it is a better alternative than many on the market.
ABS plastic is a harder grade plastic and coincidentally, is the same plastic that lego building blocks are made of. It is recyclable, but must be sent out to outside companies to be recycled. ABS plastic must be entered into grinders and turned into plastic flake or pellets which must be then further resold through the market in order to be melted down and extruded in filament form which is needed for 3D printing methods. The manufacturing of ABS plastic is along the same lines as production for traditional plastics. Which means it contributes to global warming through the generation of greenhouse gasses and utilizes more energy output in order to manufacture.
But all hope for the environmentally conscious 3D printer enthusiast is not doomed. As the field grows, so does its consciousness into waste management and production methods to ensure it remains a green industry revolution. 3D printing and its community of maker's displays an obvious awareness of their contribution to waste management and as they push forward embracing and building this new technology, their efforts to remain environmentally sound expand as well. In the meantime many companies such as Cubify, the maker of the Cube X 3D printer, offer recycling programs and have committed themselves to keeping the 3D printing movement green.
Just this year, another amazing innovation hit the 3D printing world in terms of recycling materials into the filament used for printing. Filabot used crowd-funding website Kickstarter to back the creation of a device which reclaims everyday recyclable plastic objects and uses it to create the filament necessary for 3D printing. It even spools the filament from the recycled plastic goods you enter into it so all you have to do is pop it onto your 3D printer and press print. The Filabot reclaimer is still in the final stages of R&D and manufacturing of the device. But it is encouraging to see people in the 3D printing community keeping their hand to the pulse of the planet and innovating new ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastics already existent into the materials used in 3D printing.
One company, Kamermaker, wants to take this concept one step further by pairing 3D printing capabilities, environmental consciousness, and social activism. Their hope is to harness the power of already available plastic waste through the use of technology like the Filabot reclaimer. They have undertaken the project of building a large scale yet portable 3D printer which can then be used to create temporary housing in the event of natural disasters, or to create housing which can offer people more hygienic and long lasting homes in major over populated environments. Here is a demonstration of the innovative spirit of the 3D printing community and how makers focus themselves to help literally create a better world for all print by print, piece by piece.
Creating 3D objects with a 3D printer does require some software and computers in order to communicate the scan of the 3D object layer by layer to the printer for manufacturing in 3D. But a new product is about to take 3D printing and manufacturing to a whole new level. The 3Doodler is a 3D printing pen who's R&D and manufacturing for wide spread use has been collecting funds through the crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter. Watch the video here at the link below in order to see how this pen will take 3D printing to new levels by taking it off the board and putting it literally in your own hands.
For a look at a fully assembled 3D printer which prints using both PLA and ABS filament and is affordable, check out Robo 3D's ABS model. This printer allows makers to print using both PLA and ABS filament, pair that with a Filabot and you'll be making in no time while you recycle plastic waste in your own home.