5 ideas for eco-friendly 3D printing

There is something really empowering in coming up with an idea and bringing it into the real world. Traditionally speaking, the bridge that took you from idea to accomplishment was filled with red tape and high costs. In some fields like drug research, this is still the case. But progress takes place whether we like it or not. And while regulations may not disappear overnight, high costs certainly do. Peter Diamandis was right in his ‘Abundance’ book: the world is getting demonetized and dematerialized. We need less money and less space to store our stuff. And climate change could slow down for those two reasons.
3D printing is a technology that has the potential to be eco-friendly, but it is not there yet. Not all types of 3D printers make efficient use of raw material. And all of them use lots of energy to function. Being a minimalist, I use 3D printing services locally and for the time being, I refuse to own such a machine. For a long time, the only available materials to print were plastics. Given their slow decay rate, I don’t feel like using plastic for iterative designs.I’m too young to not care about climate change and I don’t want the legacy that I leave behind to consist of a bunch of plastics floating in the oceans.

So here are 5 ideas to make 3D printing eco-friendly today:
1. Check your CAD design and check it again . Use appropriate materials for your budget, the detail you need and whatever environment that object is going to be used in. Think about the long-term use and reuse of that object.

2. Use 3D printing services – local ones as much as possible. One handy solution I use is 3dhubs.com where I upload the model and I search for 3D printing services according to the nearest zip code and any type of 3D printer and material I’m interested in.

3. Plastics are still widely used because they are cheap, the main ones being ABS and PLA. Desktop 3D printers use plastics only and melting them emits all sorts of toxic fumes. I only printed in polylactic acid(PLA) which is a type of plastic derived from corn. I’m glad I didn’t use it for iterative designs because while biodegradable, it does so slowly in hundreds of years. And being made of corn and not petroleum, I can’t just toss my bad designs to the recycle container. And I know of no composting facility close to where I live. But it’s still the better option among the two.

4. I try to move away from PLA altogether and try easily recyclable materials like metals.  The problem with metals is that it needs powder 3D printing and that can dramatically increase costs unless one uses the services of an industrial 3D printer as needed. Not to mention that some metals themselves are expensive. I’m also interested in trying ceramics in the near future.

5. Probably, the most eco-friendly material would be food. What is more biodegradeable than that? But printed food must be both tasty and healthy. The nozzle must be used with food only and both it and the surface on which the ingredients are extruded must be made from food grade materials themselves. Unfortunately, some extruders contain lead. For the time being, it’s much better to create 3D printed molds and use those for custom-shaped concoctions like chocolate bars.
If you need food grade materials, you can try porcelain from Shapeways or ceramics from iMaterialize.

In the end, the only eco-friendly thing about 3D printing is the ability to modify designs ad nauseam on a computer or mobile phone and print on demand only. And that is no small feature either! By the sheer of its on-demand and on-the-spot character, 3D printing has the potential to be more eco-friendly than mass production. But it’s not there yet. Hopefully, these 5 ideas will help you choose appropriate materials and take the long-term use and reuse of the 3D printed objects into consideration.
If you know of any interesting and eco-friendly new materials, I’d love to hear from you!

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