Sustainable Practices and Materials in Additive Manufacturing 

As 3D printing technology continues to advance and gain popularity, there has been a growing emphasis on addressing the environmental impact associated with the production and use of plastic-based 3D printed objects. The production and use of plastic-based 3D printed objects can contribute to environmental concerns such as resource depletion, waste generation, and pollution. However, sustainable practices offer solutions to minimize these impacts.

In addition to sustainable practices, the choice of materials is crucial in minimizing the environmental impact of 3D plastic printing. Sustainable materials for 3D printing include biodegradable and compostable options, such as PLA (polylactic acid) derived from renewable resources. PLA is a popular choice due to its biodegradability, which reduces the environmental burden associated with plastic waste. Other sustainable materials include recycled filaments made from post-consumer or post-industrial plastics, which divert waste from landfills and reduce the demand for new plastic production.

The adoption of sustainable practices and materials in 3D plastic printing aligns with broader environmental goals, such as reducing carbon emissions, conserving resources, and minimizing waste. It addresses concerns related to the use of non-renewable resources and the disposal of plastic waste, contributing to a more sustainable and circular economy. This article will examine the environmental impact of 3D printing with plastic, and present sustainable practices and materials that are being adopted to address these concerns.

What is the environmental impact of 3D printing with plastic?

3D printing with plastic materials can have several environmental impacts, primarily related to the production, use, and disposal stages of the printing process. While 3D printing offers benefits such as customization, design freedom, reduced material waste, and localized manufacturing, it also has environmental considerations that need to be addressed:

  • Raw Material Extraction: The production of plastic filament or resin used in 3D printing requires the extraction and processing of raw materials, such as petroleum-based plastics. The extraction process can lead to habitat destruction, water pollution, and the release of greenhouse gasses, contributing to climate change and environmental degradation.
  • Energy Consumption: 3D printers consume energy during the printing process, and the energy requirements can vary depending on the printer type, size, and printing speed. The use of energy-intensive processes, especially in large-scale production, can result in increased carbon emissions and contribute to environmental impact.
  • Emissions: The heating and melting of plastic materials during the 3D printing process can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulate matter into the air, especially if the printer is not properly ventilated. These emissions can have detrimental effects on air quality and human health, particularly in poorly ventilated spaces.
  • Waste Generation: 3D printing can generate waste in the form of failed prints, support structures, and excess material. If not properly managed, this waste can contribute to plastic pollution and end up in landfills or ecosystems. Additionally, discarded or unused plastic filament spools can also contribute to waste generation.
  • End-of-Life Disposal: The disposal of 3D printed plastic objects presents challenges, as many plastics used in 3D printing are not easily recyclable in traditional recycling systems. The complex composition and mixed materials used in some prints can make recycling difficult. Improper disposal or incineration of plastic waste can release harmful chemicals into the environment and contribute to pollution.

Addressing the environmental impact of 3D printing with plastic materials requires adopting sustainable practices and materials. 

Sustainable Practices and Materials ARE Being Adopted to Address These Concerns!

  1. Material Selection: Choosing sustainable and eco-friendly materials is an essential step in reducing the environmental footprint of 3D plastic printing. Biodegradable and compostable materials, such as PLA (polylactic acid) derived from renewable resources like cornstarch or sugarcane, are popular choices. PLA has gained traction due to its ability to break down naturally over time, reducing waste and pollution.
  2. Recycled Filaments: Utilizing recycled filaments made from post-consumer or post-industrial waste is an effective way to reduce the demand for new plastic materials. Recycled filaments are typically made from reclaimed plastics, such as ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), PET (polyethylene terephthalate), or HDPE (high-density polyethylene). Incorporating recycled content into 3D printing materials helps divert plastic waste from landfills and conserves resources.
  3. Closed-Loop Systems: Implementing closed-loop systems in 3D printing operations helps minimize waste and energy consumption. Closed-loop systems involve recycling and reusing excess or failed prints, filament scraps, and support structures. These materials can be processed and fed back into the 3D printing process, reducing material waste and promoting a more sustainable workflow.
  4. Energy Efficiency: Optimizing energy consumption during the 3D printing process is an important sustainability consideration. Using energy-efficient printers and software that optimize print settings can minimize energy usage. Additionally, employing strategies such as print scheduling, grouping multiple prints together, and optimizing the printer’s operating temperature can further enhance energy efficiency.
  5. Design for Sustainability: Emphasizing sustainable design principles is key to reducing the environmental impact of 3D plastic printing. Designing objects with optimized geometries, utilizing lightweight structures, and minimizing material usage can significantly reduce waste and energy consumption. Employing design techniques such as lattice structures and hollowed parts can reduce the amount of material required while maintaining structural integrity.
  6. Post-Processing: Adopting environmentally friendly post-processing techniques is essential to ensure sustainable practices throughout the entire 3D printing workflow. Utilizing water-based or bio-based solvents for cleaning and finishing processes instead of harsh chemicals helps minimize environmental pollution. Proper waste management and disposal of post-processing residues are also essential considerations.
  7. Life Cycle Assessment: Conducting life cycle assessments (LCAs) to evaluate the environmental impact of 3D printed objects is a valuable practice. LCAs help identify areas for improvement and guide decision-making towards more sustainable choices. Assessing factors such as material sourcing, production, use, and end-of-life disposal can provide insights into the overall sustainability of 3D printed products.

As the 3D printing industry continues to evolve, the integration of sustainable practices and materials becomes increasingly important. Manufacturers, designers, and users of 3D printed objects are recognizing the importance of reducing the environmental impact and are actively seeking ways to incorporate sustainable practices into their workflows. This emphasis on sustainability in 3D plastic printing reflects the growing awareness of environmental responsibility and the commitment to creating a more sustainable future. 

Nota3D recognizes that sustainability is important to how we do business. The context in which our business operates is transforming due to the effects of climate change and heightened social, economic, and health challenges around the globe. We continue to enhance our environmental, social, and governance (“ESG”) activities as we drive forward with our long-term sustainability strategy. Our strategic priorities are advancing innovation through our people, developing solutions to use resources responsibly, and implementing actions to reduce and eliminate waste.