3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) has been all the rage for the past 10 years. From industries to households, people are using 3D printers for various applications. For example, startups in the medical field can use 3D printers to create tailored tooth implants and prosthetics.
At home, you can 3D print custom-fitted products such as pots for plants, gadgets for woodworking, and figurines. However, while 3D printing is useful, there are rising concerns about its use and the effect that it is taking on the environment.
3D printing is environmentally friendly when using biodegradable filaments like PLA or recyclable filaments such PETG. Non-biodegradable and non-recyclable filaments such as ABS, Nylon, and Polycarbonate can be a net negative to the environment if used or disposed of incorrectly.
Anything is okay in small amounts but with the rise of 3D printing, we all need to consider what is appropriate and what is too far.
Are 3D Printing Filaments Biodegradable?
Many people often ask if 3D printing filaments are biodegradable. Well, the answer is yes and no. Basically, some of the printing filaments are biodegradable, while others are not. 3D filaments available on the market are:
Let’s find out if the printing filaments above are biodegradable.
PLA is one of the most popular 3D printing materials. Made of cornstarch, PLA is 100% biodegradable. This is because it breaks down easier than filaments made from synthetic materials. Basically, PLA uses the waxy parts of plants to break down into biodegradable parts.
What you need to know is that PLA has a lower melting point than most plastics. As such, you can recycle 3D printing material. In fact, there is a way of recycling PLA. Simply hand the printing filaments to a recycling plant with expertise in grinding and extruding new filaments.
You also have the option of recycling the filaments by yourself. To do so, make sure that you keep your discarded prints. Keep adding the discarded prints until you have enough to turn them in for a new project.
Like PLA, PETG is not compostable in the formal sense of the word. What you need to know is that PETG and PET are chemically similar. As such, PETG is usually excluded by most municipal recycling programs from recycling. This is because its low melting point makes PETG a pesky contaminant.
However, while it’s not biodegradable, it is recyclable. Today, you can find BioPETG, one of the first PETG filaments that are friendly to the environment. It’s also economical and has fantastic optical properties.
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is also not biodegradable nor recyclable. In fact, most municipal recycling programs do not recycle the filament because it’s classified as Type 7. This is under the ASTM International Resin Identifier Codes.
Like PET and PETG, ABS is a thermoplastic not accepted by recycling centers. It’s recommended not to mix the filament with your food waste or garbage. However, you can contact your local recycling center to know where to recycle ABS easily.
Nylon and Polycarbonate
Both nylon and polycarbonate 3D printing filaments are not biodegradable nor are they recyclable. While they are thermoplastics like PLA, they are not accepted by municipal recycling programs. As such, they are among the least used filaments.
What Is 3D Printer Filament Made Of?
PLA is a polyester derived from biomass such as fermented plant starch like cassava, sugar beet pulp, sugar cane, and corn. It’s made of two monomers namely lactide and lactic acid. To produce lactic acid, you need a plant-based carbohydrate source as mentioned above.
Then the plant-based carbohydrate source undergoes bacterial fermentation producing lactic acid. The process above occurs under controlled conditions. Because the process relies on carbohydrate sources, it’s renewable and sustainable.
Under commercial composting, PLA takes twelve weeks to break down. This makes PLA an environmentally friendly choice to other plastics which take decades to decompose. Such plastics include nylon, polycarbonate, PETG, and ABS.
PETG is usually made of a combination of polyethylene terephthalate and glycol to form a clear thermoplastic. When exposed to heat, it’s easy to shape, mold, and cut to size. Nylon and ABS are also thermoplastics with greater mechanical strength but low stiffness. However, it’s useful in 3D printing and other applications where a high strength-to-weight ratio is always needed.
Does 3D Printing Cause Air Pollution?
Many people often ask, is 3D printing harmful to the environment? When printing using a 3D printer, the smell of melting plastic is an excellent sign that your 3D printer is working. However, research shows that these emissions have been linked to health risks.
Yes, some of the printing materials produce harmless off smells when heated. But others produce particulate matter and volatile organic compounds. This is common in both resin-based and filament-based 3D printers.
When inhaled, VOCs and other particulate matter can build up in your lungs. As a result, they will cause respiratory illnesses such as asthma. Your body may also absorb the particulate matter into your organs and the circulatory system.
Are 3D Printers Toxic to Animals?
A recent study reveals that most 3D printers are using non-toxic filaments such as PLA. However, if you use 3D printing filaments such as polycarbonate, the fumes are harmful to birds. Remember, 3D printers can release harmful particles into the air. This is common when using ABS, PETG, and nylon filaments. They emit emissions that may irritate the nasal tract, and eyes and can induce nausea and headaches.
Does 3D Printing Contribute to Climate Change?
Traditional printing consumes several resources and energy. As such, there is a carbon footprint on every sheet of printed paper. However, with 3D printing, the technology uses less energy. As a result, it has less carbon footprint especially when you use biodegradable filaments.
A good example is in Malawi where 3D printing reduced carbon emissions by up to 70%. It also helped reduce transport emissions by as much as two tons per home when building in remote areas. This reveals the potential of solving the rural housing deficit while reducing emissions.
Where Do Discarded 3D Prints End Up?
The best way to discard 3D prints is to find an online filament recycler where you can send your scraps, and the recycler will recycle them for you. If using PLA for your 3D prints, it’s possible to compost them at home. This process may take around 6 months.
3D printing is growing in popularity. Its applications are spreading from industries to remote villages around the world. As such, there is a critical need to use biodegradable filaments and materials to reduce emissions and harm to the environment.
As mentioned, the use of nylon, ABS, and polycarbonate filaments can emit VOCs which pose an inhalation hazard. Want to reduce emissions while 3D printing? Use biodegradable and non-toxic filaments!