How is 3D printing a sustainable method to reduce environmental waste?

Apr 14, 2023

3D Design

7 minute read

3D Printing help Reduce Environmental Wastes

Curious about the importance of 3D printing technology and the potential sustainability it holds over the current manufacturing process? Then stick with us until the end and get to know how viable additive manufacturing is, and how does 3D printing products reduce waste!

3D technology is in constant evolution and innovation. With so many 3D-driven designing methods the world has adapted, 3D printing is the newest to join the 3D club. Although 3D printing technology is nothing new and has been around since the 1980s, it is only now that production engineers and manufacturers have fathomed its full potential.

Also known as “additive manufacturing”, the 3D printing procedure of manufacturing is the process of creating a three-dimensional model from a digital file. Owing to its manifold sustainable benefits and convenience, several sectors, including industrial manufacturing, healthcare, automotive, aerospace, etc., have accepted this new-age manufacturing procedure.

However, the question is: does 3D printing truly help reduce carbon emissions and industrial waste? Does it really live up to all the claims of being environmentally sustainable? Let’s find out why and how the uses of 3D printing can save the environment!

Eight ways how 3D printing helps in reducing environmental wastes and makes manufacturing more sustainable

Amidst all the discussion and speculation, it is safe to say that 3D printing methodologies do have significant environmental benefits over the traditional approach.

If you wonder how, by meeting the three major criteria of sustainability: the ability to reduce, reuse, and lastly, recycle.

In additive manufacturing, as the name suggests, the models or prototypes are created by adding materials and not subtracting, thus producing significantly fewer waste by-products. The possibilities do seem unlimited. Check them out below!

  1. 3D Printing drastically reduces material waste

    The best part about this manufacturing technology is that the 3D printer utilizes the exact amount of resources and materials required to develop a model prototype - nothing more than that.

    Be it metal or plastic, in the additive manufacturing process, the material is put exactly where it is required, rather than carving or scraping out parts or pouring molten metal in molds, thereby creating metal scraps as by-products.

    This helps to prevent the trimming of any excess material, unlike traditional methods such as laser cutting or milling. Based upon a pre-developed CAD drawing, the printer leaves hollow spaces in the middle of the model wherever material is not required. The entire process reduces the carbon footprint to a great extent.

  2. Less carbon-heavy transport

    Mainly, the huge carbon emissions of traditional manufacturing are due to the supply chain system required to transport the goods from one place to another. This logistics and locomotion consume a lot of energy and emit considerable CO2 into the atmosphere.

    On the other hand, the additive manufacturing process saves a lot of fuel. The 3D-printed models are designed and developed virtually and can be shared virtually with the clients through emails for further review or final production. Since little travel and transportation are involved, 3D printing is consequently sustainable.

  3. Reduces the storage of huge stocks in the warehouse

    With the usage of 3D printing technology, the manufacturer can print on-demand or in smaller batches per the order requirement instead of maintaining a full-fledged inventory stacked with overstock and spare parts. Thus, stock wastage and revenue risk can be significantly curtailed.

    This is also deemed JIT (just-in-time) manufacturing where manufacturers print products only when the order is placed. The JIT approach to manufacturing products has massive potential in the eyewear industry, wherein using 3D printing, each frame could be custom-created on-demand.

    This trend is evident in several global eyegear brands collaborating with Materialize, a Belgium-based 3D printing company, to produce 3D printed eye wearables collections.

  4. 3D printing uses eco-friendly raw materials

    Another great aspect of the 3D printing method is its use of environmentally friendly and biodegradable raw materials. For example, ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), a thermoplastic polymer commonly used for additive manufacturing, lasts for a very long time and is biodegradable to some extent.

    Mostly polymers like ABS, PEEK (poly ether ester ketone), etc., are used to develop parts of aircraft and vehicles. Another element, the PLA (polylactic acid) plastic, is much more eco-friendly and degrades very quickly.

    Hence, most manufacturing companies that use 3D printing utilizes PLA for their printer.

  5. New innovations without limits with 3D printing

    Applications of 3D printing also give designers a way to design more efficiently and with greater innovation without being too hard on the environment. This not only boosts operational efficiency but also lessens the runtime of industrial appliances, which automatically helps reduce carbon emissions.

    By additively manufacturing whatever components they need, manufacturers can positively impact on the planet.

  6. AM (“Additive Manufacturing”) creates lightweight products

    The materials mentioned above that are used are extremely lightweight and durable. Products created with these components tend to last longer than their traditional counterparts. This, in turn, creates lower demands, which implies lower supply and product development.

    Thus, even indirectly, the method of 3D printing helps emit fewer greenhouse gases and reduce energy consumption.

  7. Quick and easy repair of broken 3D printed parts

    If a 3D-printed product is broken, there’s no need to entirely discard it because repairing broken parts and acquiring spare parts is too easy with 3D printing. With the help of simple superglue, you can repair a broken part and make it as good as new.

    Apart from this, there are several other ways of fixing broken 3D-printed parts. A more professional way of doing it is the “sanding and filling” option, where the manufacturer sands the surface, making it even, with the help of electric modeling tools like “Dremel”, and then fills it with a 3D-printed filler.

    Another alternative is to use a 3D pen that can effectively re-structure the broken part. With all these less expensive methods, one can repair and reuse old products instead of buying new ones.

    This also proves the fact that 3D printing is indeed an environmentally sustainable manufacturing alternative.

  8. 3D printing utilizes recycled filaments and materials

    This might sound unreal, but the 3D printing technology actually uses up recycled materials and filaments. This was evident in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where the podiums were made entirely by 3D printing using recycled filaments.

    Usually, in traditional product manufacturing, prototypes and initial versions of products are made and then discarded if any design flaws are noticed. The process continues until the design is 100% flawless, resulting in several discarded, yet reusable elements. In additive manufacturing, all of these discarded elements can be recycled and reused.

    Furthermore, post-consumer plastic waste can be used up in 3D printing, which is a viable solution for getting rid of plastic from the environment in a productive way.

    “Filamentive PETg” is a perfect instance of recycled 3D printer filament created from consumer-recycled content, produced from discarded PETg plastic waste that otherwise goes to landfill. The raw material is first sourced from a conventional manufacturer; then, the plastic is sorted, cleaned, and shredded into a homogenous grey material.

    Finally, a high-quality masterbatch - a solid plastic additive, is added to give the grey pellets a colored form, and a recycled, reusable product is extruded out of it.

Few sustainability challenges of 3D printing

Despite many environmental advantages, such as easy and rapid prototyping, the technology has a few drawbacks. It contributes to a huge number of ready-to-use products that can still go to landfills, thereby increasing environmental waste. Surprised? Let’s check the facts without further ado!

  1. Significant post-processing waste created

    Although 3D printing is substantially less wasteful than conventional methods, a lot of waste is still produced as by-products.

    Such as excess liquid resins, used plastic powders, discarded printed models, support materials to prevent printing deformation, waste from metal printing, and so on.

    Filamentive, a recycled filament maker, conducted a survey in 2020 and found almost 8 million tons of post-processing waste (printed plastic by-products) generated.

  2. The main ingredient of 3D printing is plastic and polymers

    As mentioned in this blog, most materials used in this technology are plastic or polymer, which is biohazards' biggest driver. These thermoplastic raw materials are mainly used for slower printing processes.

    Unfortunately, even in faster printing, a significant amount of hazardous waste is yielded, creating a negative environmental impact.

  3. Additive manufacturing indulges in creating more prototypes

    Owing to the convenience, flexibility, and large-scale commercial access to the technology, more and more manufacturers are competing against each other and manufacturing numerous prototypes.

    As the production process is rapid and allows plenty of design alterations and customization, manufacturers and product engineers freely take advantage of their independence and avail themselves of the technology.

    However, the worrying thing is that the more prototypes created, the higher the number of waste by-products, failed parts, and support materials. Before they even realize it, they contribute to a large mass of ecological solid waste.

  4. Additive manufacturing has major health hazards

    It is a known fact that inhaling even bits of metal powder or lethal gases from molten plastic can cause long-term health hazards. However, research on this aspect of additive manufacturing is considerably less. What kind of PPE (personal protective equipment) kit is required, adequate ventilation measures, etc., are still under R&D.

    Nevertheless, the vehement adaptation of the technology is not on hold, thus posing serious health consequences for workers and production engineers.

    The only silver lining is most industrial environments have closed working space that prevents gas leakage, as well as contains emission filters that curtails the employees’ exposure to these lethal gases.

    Some also adopt automation to automate post-processing, reducing manual interventions.

  5. 3D printing uses considerable electricity

    Another useful fact that cannot be denied is the rampant electricity consumption involved in the entire manufacturing process. The production time may be shorter and more rapid, but the energy consumption is mostly higher.

    That said, a lot of electricity is required to be spent during the printing procedure over a lengthy period to create a comparatively smaller product.

  6. Used liquid resin poses a big environmental hazard factor

    One critical environmental hazard factor is the large amount of molten resin accumulated in the vats. Resin is itself a biohazard in its liquid form and non-recyclable in it solid form. Resin 3D printers use support structures that are finally removed from the end product, ending up in landfills since they cannot be further recycled.

    Well, the only hope is the research underway to develop eco-friendly “rink amide” resin (AM) by procuring cooking oil from several McDonald’s outlets.

    However, aside from one such commercially available eco-friendly resin, “Recyclamine”, the availability of other are much scarce.

The future potential of 3D printing in reducing manufacturing emissions

The possibilities with 3D printing and additive manufacturing technology are endless. Companies are increasingly encouraged and incentivized to implement sustainable raw materials within their printing workflow. For example, used coffee grounds, cellulose, algae, etc.

Researchers and scientists also strive to create more eco-friendly raw materials, such as bio-degradable corn-based plastic with low carbon emissions, and contribute to eco-friendly waste disposal.

It is also a mentionable fact that although 3D printing relies heavily on plastic and polymer, that’s only true for desktop-grade printers. Industrial printers use many organic resources, ranging from wood, metal, ceramic, glass, and much more.

Also, extensive research is underway to produce 3D-printed human organs and parts using bio-ink made of human cells.

A California-based 3D printing construction firm, Mighty Buildings, recently formed a partnership with Fortera, a San-Jose-based materials technology company. The agenda behind this visionary partnership is Fortera’s breakthrough innovation in producing a type of cement that curbs CO2 emissions by more than 60% compared to conventional, old-school concrete-based cement.

This partnership will further allow a strategic liaison between the two organizations to address the US housing availability crisis and fight the eco-hazards, paving the way to carbon-neutral construction by 2028.

According to a projection by the U.S. Department of Energy, by 2050, 3D printing and additive manufacturing technology can save up to 90% of waste and raw materials, as well as reduce manufacturing energy consumption to half.

All these facets have a great potential for this technology and its future, as well as those new-age companies considering adapting to 3D printing!

Wrapping up!

As conclusion, it can safely be said that comparing both traditional process of product manufacturing and the advanced additive manufacturing through 3D printers, the latter has far less environmental adverse effects.

Considering the raw materials procurement, assembling, cleaning and refining, manufacturing, and finally the final usage - 3D printing definitely emerges as the winner in reducing carbon footprint.

In spite of having some flaws, this modern manufacturing process has the potential of making our manufacturing processes further sustainable in the future. There are several companies who are already leveraging this technology, and professional 3D artists strive their best to develop custom print-ready models with their on-demand 3d print design services.

You can get in touch with any such 3D expert offering high-end 3D modeling services and get yourself custom-designed print-ready models of your products.

With the 3D printing technology, let’s look at a greener, more sustainable future for the generations to come!

Get in touch!

Sushmita Roy

A seasoned 3D professional with a creative focused, and a knack for diverse 3D designs, software and the technology. She's associated with ThePro3DStudio for long enough to prove her mettle and make every 3D projects successful. When she’s not busy working for a new project, she shares valuable insights from her own experience.