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Is 3D printing good or bad for the environment?

By OVO Energy Wednesday 20 November 2013

3d printer printing blue item

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 back 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 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.

3D printers are being used by forward-thinking architects and engineers, but domestic hobbyists are also getting in on the action, using them to make jewellery or household bits and bobs – as a result, basic models will only get cheaper as the technology improves. Currently, the cost of a 3D printer is anywhere between £250 and £250,000, so you could say there’s something for everyone!

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 completely revolutionise the way we purchase goods, and the life cycle of everyday products, altogether. But what does this mean for the environment? As usual, there are pros and cons, so let’s 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, or shipping them 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. Many 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. Some 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’s 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 replacement – 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’s more than likely additional materials will be introduced in future generations of 3D printers).

Less energy across the product life cycle

Taking into account many of these factors, some scientists reckon 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. The technology is yet to be perfected, but there’s hope for the future.

CONS

Heavy reliance on plastics

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

Encouraging wastefulness

While consumerism has a lot to answer for, 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, anytime? How long before more shoes than you could ever wear fill your closet? Key thinkers on the subject are concerned relatively cheap and easy access to ‘stuff’ will have a pretty damaging impact on reduce, reuse and recycle efforts.

Second-hand fumes

Recent research indicates the 3D printing process does release gases and particles, potentially hazardous to both humans and animals. And the long-term effects of exposure to such plastic pollution isn’t yet fully understood. Eek.

Energy inefficiency

While basic items created by 3D printing may use less energy than those manufactured and shipped traditionally, it 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. 3D printers are energy hungry machines – according to researchers at Loughborough University, using heat or lasers to melt plastic consumes 50 to 100 times more electrical energy than traditional injection moulding would.