3D Printing: Sustainability, Recycling, and Home Use

people using computer and 3D printer

You may have heard that 3D printers can create everything from prosthetic limbs to guns to even houses. The technology could allow more efficient production at the “edge” of the economy and create more efficient distribution systems.

What does this revolutionary technology mean for our lives and the environment? Let’s dive in.

The Sustainability of 3D Printing

Traditional manufacturing is not always an efficient use of material because it often involves drilling away material from a whole to create a product and throwing away the remainder.

On the other hand, 3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing that allows us to “print” three-dimensional objects from a digital file, similar to printing a Word document on a traditional printer. But instead of a flat representation on a sheet of paper, the 3D printer layers filaments of various materials in thin sheets until it “adds up” to create a 3D object. To see a 3D printer in action, watch the short video at the end of this article.

The additive approach uses only as much material as the printed object requires, with the exception of supports that hold up the print. Often, the residue can be reused in further prints. And it can substantially reduce over-production and keeping extra inventory where it is not needed by eliminating centralized manufacturing.

For these reasons, 3D printing is considered an affordable and sustainable way to create and repair existing products.

How Is 3D Printing Useful to Me?

For example, I recently repurposed the electronics from an old wireless phone charger to create a new 3D-printed charger that fits an upgraded phone. E-waste averted!

3d printed base for phone charger

Photo credit: Ondřej Pokorný and Chloe’ Skye Weiser

This YouTube video shows an enthusiast using his home printer to repair an electric fan, golf club, garden hose, and more. It’s a nice, if futuristic, thought: If everyone had a 3D printer at home, we could extend the life of appliances and other consumer products indefinitely.

Can I Recycle 3D Prints?

You may be asking what materials 3D printers use. The short answer is nearly all materials you can use to create anything! The longer answer is that it’s about technical capacity.

Industrial-grade 3D printers can use steel, glass, even stem cells to make physical objects, food, or, if progress continues, human organs. These materials can be in the form of filaments and powders, and some take a different approach that starts with a block of material that is carved into the desired product using lasers.

Consumer-grade printers, on the other hand, are more likely to use variations of plastic or filaments that closely resemble plastic. The most common materials are polylactic acid (PLA), polyethylene terephthalate glycol-modified (PET-G), and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). We used PLA for the phone charger, soap dish, and earbud organizer pictured in this article.

3d-printed soap dish

3D-printed soap dish. Photo credit: Ondřej Pokorný and Chloe’ Skye Weiser

The introduction of 3D printing also requires rethinking the recycling system. Most everyday 3D printing material cannot be recycled in curbside municipal programs. According to All3DP.com, “Under the ASTM International Resin Identifier Codes, [both PLA and ABS] are classified as Type 7, or “Other,” which are not typically processed by municipal programs.”

PLA is a starch-based material that biodegrades in industrial conditions: great for a commercial composter (if they accept that material) but not for your home compost. According to Livegreen.com, “It cannot be recycled with other types of plastics because it has a lower melting temperature that causes problems at recycling centers.”

From PET-G, you might recognize PET or plastic #1, the most common and easily recycled plastic (think PET bottles). PET-G is a modified version of PET where the glycol additive gives it more flexibility and greater impact resistance.

While more single-use plastics doesn’t sound great for the environment, some 3D printing companies claim their materials will be fully recyclable. Acme Plastics says its PET-G material is fully recyclable, but All3DP.com reports it can contaminate PET/PETE recycling streams. The company 3D Print Life has developed biodegradable PET-G filament.

In all cases, contact your municipality to confirm that 3D printed materials can be recycled or composted. And if they’ve never heard of it, educate them, and express your interest in recycling the material — recycling programs will respond to demand.

Are There Alternatives to Traditional Recycling?

PLA, PET-G, and ABS are all classified as thermoplastics, which means they become liquid at their melting point. While they can’t be traditionally recycled, they can be reheated to make new filaments.

Supporters of this method hope that as 3D printing becomes more popular, it will become easier for consumers to directly recycle the material into filament for future prints. This involves crushing, melting, and extruding the residue from a special machine called a filament extruder.

The Perpetual Plastic Project is an interactive plastic recycling installation where plastic waste is recycled on the spot into new products by 3D printers. Imagine, for example, using a plastic utensil and tossing it into a home recycling system that produces the raw material for another object.

How Can I Start With 3D Printing?

If you’re tech-savvy, you can buy your own printer for between $100 and $10,000. To design 3D printing models, you’ll need computer-aided design (CAD) software (CAD) — available for purchase as well as free versions.

On Thingiverse, you can find open-source print models that can be loaded into compatible printers. That’s how we printed this earbud organizer.

3D-printed earbud organizer

Earbud organizer created from open-source 3D print model. Photo credit: Ondřej Pokorný and Chloe’ Skye Weiser

You can also commission from consumer printing services — here’s a full list. Most involve designing your prototype in CAD, finalizing the materials and finish with the company, and receiving it in the mail. Some of the largest are Protolabs (worldwide), Xometry (North America), Shapeways (worldwide), and JawsTec (USA, Canada, Mexico). We reached out to these four companies to ask whether they recycle 3D prints. Shapeways responded that they don’t currently have this capacity.

Want to learn more about 3D printing? Watch this video from Digital Trends:

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