Is 3D Printing Environmentally Friendly? 

3D printing’s total impact on the environment is inconclusive, but several aspects can be weighed to determine that this technology is a step in the right direction for the environment. Despite not being energy efficient and other drawbacks, 3D printing can prove to be more environmentally beneficial as it becomes more advanced and widespread. 

In this article, we’ll discuss how 3D printing can both hinder and help the environment, its standing overall for eco-friendliness, and steps you can take to make your 3D prints better for the environment. For clarity, we will be discussing 3D printing as it pertains to the industrial manufacturing level. 

Harmful Aspects of 3D Printing

As with any modern manufacturing technology, 3D printing has several side effects that are less than ideal for maintaining a healthy environment. 

Higher Electricity Usage

Like other manufacturing methods, 3D printers use electricity to function. However, due to its unique additive process, 3D printing takes much longer to complete one part than traditional methods, such as injection molding or machining. This means that more electricity is used per part with 3D printing, and the same amount of electricity used could make dozens of the same part via other methods in the same time. Electricity usage may also be increased if the material being printed requires a higher melting temperature since the printer must be able to reach and maintain that elevated temperature for the entire duration of the print. 

Recyclability

Because 3D printing’s primary materials are plastics, it may be difficult to imagine that 3D printing can be eco-friendly at all. For this reason, it is important to understand that different classes of plastics vary in their recyclability. 

3D printing uses two different classes of plastics: thermosets and thermoplastics. Thermosets are materials that, once cured, cannot be returned to their liquid state. As such, recycling cured thermosets is impossible, and uncured thermosets are considered to be hazardous materials that require careful handling and recycling. On the other hand, thermoplastics can be re-melted and recycled over and over. However, recycling thermoplastics can potentially make them brittle and, therefore, they become less reliable and useful, which may discourage many people from using recycled materials. While not all 3D printing materials are recyclable, all empty spools, canisters, and cartridges may be recycled.  

It is also important to note that some materials will behave differently when discarded. For example, PLA is an organic, plant-based thermoplastic that will decompose in landfills naturally, but oil-based plastics, such as ABS, will not. 

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) 

Depending on the material, the 3D printing process may cause the release of fumes or particles that are toxic in enclosed spaces. These Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, may potentially make machine operators ill, but this problem can be avoided if the printing area is well ventilated. 

Beneficial Aspects of 3D Printing

Despite some harmful drawbacks, 3D printing also benefits the environment in several ways. This makes it a great contender for a greener manufacturing future. 

Less Material Waste

Compared to subtractive manufacturing, such as CNC machining, 3D printing wastes very little material. This is because 3D printing uses an additive process that only uses the precise amount of material needed to construct your part. Subtractive manufacturing uses material blanks and will chip away slivers of material that are not often recyclable. With 3D printing, the only excess material used is that which makes the support structures that stabilize your part during printing. Even then, depending on the support material’s mechanical properties, it may be able to be recycled. 

Emission Reduction

As 3D printing becomes more mainstream, its accessibility also increases. This means that you can often find a 3D printing servicer close to you. Instead of shipping your parts from manufacturers abroad, you can get them made locally. This helps reduce emissions from transport vehicles. 

Another way transport emissions may be cut back is by the part itself. Although 3D printing plastics may not seem like they should be particularly strong, there are many plastics that are capable of bearing heavy loads and recurring stress that are suitable substitutes for metal parts on automobiles and aerospace vehicles. Because plastic is lighter weight than metal, these parts enable transport vehicles to operate with greater fuel efficiency, thus reducing the overall carbon footprint over time. 

On-Demand

Due to printing speeds, digital file libraries, and accessibility, 3D printing excels with on-demand low volume productions. This means that you can produce the exact number of parts you need when you need them. Doing so will reduce resources used for transporting and storing bulk orders. It also prevents excess waste from being created if parts are not used or distributed often and become outdated so they end up in a landfill. 

No Tooling Required

3D printing does not require molds or fixtures to build your part. This saves energy because no tooling must be milled prior to the production process. The only aid structures used in 3D printing are support structures that are made during the printing process and discarded or recycled in post-production. 

The Verdict

3D printing’s exact environmental impact can be hard to determine. This is largely due to the fact that 3D printing is a newer technology and has only become popular in recent decades. As such, there is limited research on its pros and cons in relation to the environment. Overall, 3D printing may be a step forward for making manufacturing more eco-friendly, but it still has a long way to go as it grows and carves out its place in the manufacturing world. Ultimately, 3D printing will never replace traditional manufacturing methods of mass produced plastic goods, such as injection molding, blow molding, and thermoforming. However, it will likely be a valuable complementary technology to use alongside these other methods. 

As 3D printing grows, there is much room for more eco-friendly variables to be introduced. This includes using solar power to operate the printers and developing more environmentally healthy materials. For now though, 3D printing’s overall environmental impact in the long run remains to be seen as more research is conducted. 

Ways to Make 3D Printing More Green

Even though 3D printing has much room to grow to be more environmentally friendly, there are steps you can take now to make your 3D printing more green by reducing energy usage. This can be done several ways, including the following: 

  • Print your part with hollow or sparse sections to make the process faster
  • Change the part orientation for printing to reduce the amount of support material needed 
  • Print multiple small parts at a time to condense energy usage time
  • Use a lower temperature material if able for the part’s intended application

3D Printing at 3 Space

Here are 3 Space, we offer multiple manufacturing options, including 3D printing. If you have questions or concerns about eco-friendly 3D printing, our engineers are happy to help you find the best solution. For more information, contact us today.