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Is 3D printing good or bad for the environment?

By Rachel England Wednesday 20 November 2013

3D Printing

 

Wouldn’t it be convenient if the next time a curtain hook snapped you could simply magic one up yourself, without having to slog down to the DIY shop? Or the next time you had unexpected guests you could just whip up a few extra plates – seemingly out of thin air – instead of resorting to the battered paper plates shoved in the back of the kitchen cupboard? Of course it would, and very soon this could be a reality.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but 3D printing has been gaining traction for years now (the first working 3D printer was created in 1984!), and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Instead of printing flat, two-dimensional images onto paper, 3D printers use layers of liquid plastic to create physical, three-dimensional objects (watch a quick demo here). From kitchen utensils to children’s toys, if it can be made from plastic it can probably be made by a 3D printer.

At the moment, 3D printers are primarily being used by architects and engineers, but domestic hobbyists are also getting in on the action, using them to make jewellery or bits and bobs for the home. Such printers usually cost between $600-$2,000 – not dirt cheap but not enough to totally put shoppers off, either – and they’re set to get cheaper still as 3D printing becomes more popular.

Although it may be some time before you’ll find a 3D printer in every home, it won’t be too long before you’ll find them in shops and supermarkets, printing off items on demand which would otherwise gather dust in a warehouse somewhere. 3D printing could therefore completely revolutionise the way we purchase goods, and indeed the life cycle of everyday products altogether. But what does this mean for the environment? As usual, there are pros and cons, and here we take a look at both:

PROS

No transportation pollution

If you need something, you could just ‘print’ it out at home, or nip out to a nearby shop where it could be printed for you. No more lorries transporting goods around the country (or even air freight importing items from overseas).

No needless manufacturing

Say you’re in the market for some garden furniture – a nice plastic lawn chair, for example. Thousands of these are manufactured every year – all requiring energy and materials to do so – but not all of them are sold, and those that aren’t either end up abandoned in a corner of a warehouse, or wind up as rubbish. If it were possible to print a lawn chair on demand, it would do away with needless manufacturing and save a lot of embedded energy.

Fewer raw materials wasted

3D printing uses additive processes, where successive layers of materials are laid down in different shapes. Traditional machining processes often use subtractive processes, where cutting or drilling is used to remove unneeded parts of the object (to create holes and gaps, for example). These redundant bits of material are often useless, and just end up in the bin or at best, are recycled (which in itself uses energy).

Longer lives for products

If your toaster gives up the ghost because the lever is broken, what do you do? Sure, you could try to seek out a replacement part, but that might take a while, not to mention cost you a pretty penny – after all, products are designed with a degree of built-in obsolescence, to ensure you eventually buy new models. If you had a 3D printer, you could potentially print your own level replacement, thus extending the life of an otherwise perfectly-usable item.

Easier recycling

As it stands, all objects created by 3D printing are made from a single raw material, making the recycling process a lot more straightforward (although it is likely additional materials will be introduced in future generations of 3D printer).

Less energy across the product lifecycle

Taking into account many of these factors, scientists reckon that an item created by 3D printing has a lower energy footprint than one created by traditional processes. A study at the Michigan Technological University found that making items with a basic 3D printer took 41%-64% less energy than making them in a factory and shipping them to the US.

CONS

Heavy reliance on plastics

Generally speaking, anything involving plastic isn’t great news for the environment, and while researchers are working on creating plastic polymers (the ‘ink’, if you will) that are biodegradable, the whole process still relies on a material that is environmentally damaging to create and a real headache to get rid of.

Encouraging wastefulness

While consumerism has a lot to answer for as far as the environment is concerned, at least standing in the way of complete and utter frivolity is the cost (and logistics) involved in a big retail binge. If you go out and buy a pair of shoes with your hard-earned cash you’re going to look after them, right? But what if you could just print a new pair of shoes any time you wanted? How long would it be before you had more shoes than you could ever need piled up in your closet? Key thinkers on the subject are concerned that relatively cheap and easy access to ‘stuff’ on demand will have a pretty damaging impact on reduce, re-use and recycle efforts.

Second-hand fumes

Recent research indicates that hot plastic releases toxic fumes, and while 3D printers release around the same amount of fumes as you’d get from cooking indoors, the long-term effects of exposure to such plastic pollution isn’t yet fully understood.

Energy inefficiency

While basic items created by 3D printing may use less energy than those manufactured and shipped traditionally, 3D printing remains a pretty slow and inefficient process.  While an injection mould could pump out 1,000 objects in an hour, a 3D printer may only manage 100, using the same amount of electricity. Furthermore, 3D printers are frighteningly energy hungry. According to researchers at Loughborough University, 3D printers that use heat or a laser to melt plastic consume between 50 to 100 times more electrical energy than an injection moulding making the same object.

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