Printing | 07 07 2021

The Sustainability of 3D Printing

We've noticed a shift in society in recent years, with a shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable resources and recyclables. Even in the world of 3D printing the signs point in the same way. With each passing year, printing has become more environmentally friendly, from discovering new materials to reusing old ones.

New Materials

The 3D filament market is estimated to grow to an astounding USD 8.1 Billion by 2025 and companies such as Novamid and Onyx are locking horns in taking 1st place leading such a market. Other companies, however, are more focused on attempting to create items with a more sustainable type of material like liquid wood.

Naturally, the distinction between being fully sustainable and simply reducing the amount of plastic material used is determined by the ability to achieve a 100-percent bio-based mix in experimental formulations, where, for example, natural wood fibre is united with materials like hemp or linen using natural additives like waxes, even in the case of liquid food.

Liquid wood bioplastics are materials created entirely of renewable raw resources, in which lignin from paper production (or other wood processing leftovers) is combined with other ingredients to produce printable "pellets" in the same way that any other plastic material is. As a result, these materials have a low environmental impact.

One of these low-impact "liquid wood composites," developed by engineers at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute, is now a mass-market material produced under the Arboform trademark by biopolymer manufacturer Tecnaro. The material is biodegradable and solar-resistant, and it can be modified to be flame-resistant. Given the substantial timber production of several European nations, particularly in Scandinavia, countries like Sweden have invested heavily in this sort of composite, which is made up of wood processing wastes and biopolymers. Stora Enso's ‘Durasense’, which combines wood fibers and shavings with bio-based polymers, is another example of these novel materials.

Wood, however, is just the starting point. Soy, seaweed and algae are also currently being developed and used as viable alternatives to plastic. Since the fabrication of such materials has become more affordable, a growing number of businesses are considering it as a benefit for specialized applications without being concerned about the environmental impact. 

Design Efficiency

Engineers can experiment with new design approaches such as topology optimization and produce more efficient, lightweight items using 3D printing. Topology optimisation software uses computational algorithms to optimize the shape and weight of a pre-existing design.
Lighter, optimized parts result in long-term fuel savings in systems where energy usage is influenced by the system's weight. Every gram that is taken from the weight of cars or planes equates to fuel that is never used, and thus CO2 that is never released into the atmosphere. Northwestern University researchers employed topology optimization to lower the weight of a metal aircraft bracket in one case study. This resulted in a weight loss of 65 percent, from 1.09 kg to 0.38 kg.

According to the researchers, replacing a number of common components with topology optimized 3D-printed parts, such as this bracket, might cut overall aircraft weight by 4 to 7% while also lowering fuel consumption by 6.4 percent. This means that weight reductions in very minor components – multiplied by the hundreds to thousands of such parts employed in an aircraft or fleet – can add up to significant savings, shown in improved energy efficiency during the product's service life.

Recycling Old Prints

Even disregarding the hunt for the new mediums, printed items may already be recyclable enough. Many of our prints may become useless at some point or you just cannot see them being in your life anymore. Instead of throwing them out, simply sort the materials (sorting ABS with ABS and PLA with PLA), use a filament extruder to shred the prints and extrude the filament, respell, and reuse. Some of the new goods made possible by repurposing old plastic scraps, such as the OWA filament line, are quite remarkable. It's a tried-and-true method that's as modern and environmentally friendly as they come.

The recycling bins that seem to sprout around every corner aren’t just limited to your walk to the supermarket anymore. The 3D printing industry has also come up with a solution to repurposing the number one polluter of our oceans. Several 3D printers, such as the ProtoCycler and the Filabot Reclaimer, will break down single-use plastics like water bottles and turn them into the basic materials that additive manufacturing uses to create its prints.

The Takeaway

Despite the drawbacks such as requiring a lot of energy, using mainly non-biodegradable plastics and producing fumes with toxic by-products, the 3D printing industry can be a model of change and solution. As of right now, the future is uncertain with many obstacles ahead of us, however, with new, eco-friendly and lower cost options available and the leaps and bounds of technology advancement seem to be a positive sign.