How 3D Printing is Paving the Way to a Cleaner, More Sustainable Future

By November 2, 2016 No Comments

One of the benefits of 3D printing is its positive impact on the environment. As an additive manufacturing process, 3D printing uses fewer materials than traditional manufacturing. There’s also the potential to greatly shorten (maybe even eliminate) the need for shipping vast distances or storing product excess.

But there’s a simpler way 3D printing affects the environment: recycling.

Recycling Materials Used in 3D Printing

Plastics are common in 3D printing. And most of these plastics can be recycled and used again.

It’s partially due to the nature of 3D printing. Materials are available in either powdered or filament form. These powders or filaments are combined with a glue to build the object layer by layer, or melted together. So materials often just need to be ground up into powder or extruded into filament in order to be usable yet again.

Recycle It Yourself

In fact, there are machines out there that allow you to do this recycling yourself. Three people developed the ProtoCycler to give themselves an “endless” supply of plastic filament. They wanted to continuously print their prototypes without having to spend all of their money on filament.

The Filabot is a similar machine. The Perpetual Plastic Project can be rented for parties or education events. Designed more like an attraction, the Perpetual Plastic Project allows you and your guests to break down plastics, turn them into 3D printing materials, and print something all in the same night.

There are drawbacks. Since several 3D printing processes rely on binding powder or filament with glue to build the layers, if you’re recycling your old 3D printed items, there’s eventually going to be more glue than plastic. This makes the finished item weaker.

Recycling Metals

Metals could be recycled as well (saving us from continually mining for raw materials). At this point, though, metals aren’t as widely used in 3D printing as plastics. For many types of metals, we’re still working on how to create the materials.

But the recycling process would be similar: melt down the metal we’re recycling and reform it as powder (metals for 3D printing are most often available in powder form).

Materials Made with Recycling in Mind

One of the most popular materials available in 3D printing was made to be recycled: polylactic acid. Usually referred to as PLA, it’s a plastic made from plants.

Yes, you read that right. No petroleum was used in the making of this plastic.

The process for making PLA starts with plants that are commonly available in the area (corn here in the US, maybe potatoes somewhere else). The sugars that are a natural byproduct of milling are fermented to turn them into lactic acid.

Water is removed to allow the molecules turn into lactide. The lactide is formed into a polymer once a metal catalyst is added.

Schools and toymakers love this plastic because it’s non-toxic and available in many colors. But it’s (lack of) effect on the environment goes much further.

Once the usefulness of an object made with PLA is over, the plastic can be turned back into lactic acid. That starts the whole process over again.

3D Printing and the Environment

3D printing isn’t the perfect salvation for the environment…yet. But the technology is evolving, with many of its problems being tackled by established companies and startups alike.

As technology improves, recycling will likely become even more common in 3D printing. The cost savings of not having to buy more filament just to print another prototype alone is reason enough to have many users looking to recycle their materials.