3D printing as we know it is wasteful and directly contributes to the plastic waste problem we have developed on our planet. However, there are ways we can substantially reduce our environmental footprint.
Reducing unnecessary printed material
There are several ways to reduce plastic waste produced by 3D printing:
- Minimize support material: try to print without supports when you can, and design parts with minimal support material waste in mind
- Print with a brim instead of a raft
- Don’t print something you aren’t going to use, or will only use for a short amount of time
- Through practice, get better at 3D printing, being mindful of parts of prints that will potentially break/otherwise fail to print
Recycled and biodegradable 3D printing filaments
There are more options than ever for recycled and biodegradable 3D printing filaments.
PLA is marketed as corn-based and biodegradable, but it often contains unknown additives and is not biodegradable at home. Also if you throw it in the recycle bin, there’s no way for the recycling company to know what type of plastic it is. According to 3DNatives, “PLA consists of renewable raw materials and is biodegradable in industrial composting plants. However, due to the lack of infrastructure, it is difficult to compost PLA industrially or to recycle it.” That said, there are some recycled PLA filaments on the market that I need to research more. I’m curious whether the recycled PLA can be industrially biodegraded/composted.
PETG is my preferred material because it is stronger/less brittle than PLA. I’ve had great results with GreenGate3D’s 100% recycled PETG filament. The only downside is that it’s not biodegradable, and for the same reasons as above, it’s difficult to recycle again.
ABS is not a material I recommend because it is toxic and releases more toxic fumes than other materials. It also smells bad and doesn’t offer any real advantages over other materials — it’s stronger than PLA, but PETG is strongest. For these reasons, ABS is not worth it.
The ideal 3D printing filament would be strong, 100% recycled, and biodegradable. At this point in time, it seems that you can choose only 2 of these properties. If you know of a material that fulfills all of these requirements, please let me know! I will continue to research.
Recycling 3D prints
There seems to be 2 options for recycling 3D prints: using a recycling service, or shredding, melting, and extruding your waste material yourself.
The cheaper option, though still relatively expensive, is using a recycling service such as TerraCycle. Essentially you buy a box from them that includes a shipping label, you fill it up with your 3D printing waste, and send it back to them to recycle when it’s full. Note that they have different boxes for different 3D printing materials, with the PETG option being the cheapest.
You can also shred, melt, and extrude plastic waste yourself using a variety of different machines. Here is a thorough article on this process. This is not a cost-effective option for the average hobbyist, but it could be worth it for a higher-volume 3D printing studio/company.
The Bottom Line
3D printing is not a zero-impact method of manufacturing, but we can make small changes to our ways of doing things to make it more sustainable. Start with switching to a recycled filament such as GreenGate3D’s 100% recycled PETG filament and go from there.