Is 3D printing environmentally friendly?

Two things are on the rise: climate change and home 3D printers. For this reason, you might be wondering if 3D printing is environmentally friendly?

With a lot of plastic involved and printers that run for days on end, 3D printing is unlikely to be good for the environment.

However, you might be surprised at how 3D printing compares to the old ways of manufacturing and will be happy to learn that there are more eco-friendly options available to you.

So what is the environmental impact of 3D printing, and can it ever be green?

First of all: what is 3D printing?

3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that builds an object layer by layer until the finished product is complete.

This is different from subtractive manufacturing which starts with, say, a block of wood and cuts it down to its final product, perhaps a wooden spoon.

One of the advantages of 3D printing as an additive process is that there is less waste. Instead of starting with a block of material, you start from scratch, using only the amount needed to craft the item.

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This is what makes 3D printing a smart choice for producing objects and a seemingly greener option.

Should you 3D print?

All this talk about manufacturing sounds like we’re mass producing something, doesn’t it?

However, this technology is used by hobbyist designers and manufacturers who like to build DIY items from their homes.

With 3D printing, you can print memorabilia from your favorite TV show or print a computer case, making it an incredibly exciting technology. If that sounds useful or just a lot of fun, you can get started with this user-friendly guide for beginners to 3D printing.

But keep in mind that you are now bringing plastic items to the world that weren’t there before, and with that power comes responsibility.

The first step is to start by familiarizing yourself with your materials.

Let’s get acquainted with the types of filaments

There are several types of 3D printers and materials. To refine the focus, we’re going to talk about one of the more popular choices: merged depot modeling, or more commonly known as FDM.

The bad news is that 3D printing uses plastic filaments to print objects, and the two main types used are ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and PLA (polylactic acid).

Four spools of 3D printing filament in yellow, purple, orange and gray

Image Credit: Maurizio Pesce / Wikimedia

The good news is that they aren’t created the same way, and a quick comparison of their features will show which has the least impact on the environment.

abs

– Petroleum derivative (oil-based plastic)

– High temperature resistance

– Strong and durable

– Releases toxic fumes

– Does not degrade

– Not recyclable

APL

– Corn-based thermoplastic

– Low temperature resistance

– Does not emit fumes

– Not suitable for durable parts

– Biodegradable over time

– Recyclable

You may have noticed that one of the two plastics is recyclable, and luckily for us, it is the most used filament for 3D printing: PLA.

The choice of filament matters

Because PLA is made from a renewable source that typically comes from corn, it has the ecological characteristic of being recyclable and biodegradable.

This cannot be said of oil-based thermoplastic ABS, which cannot be recycled and is not degradable.

It might make you wonder why someone would choose ABS filament in the first place. Well, it comes down to its strength and durability properties, which compared to PLA will be much more durable over the life of the object.

Think LEGO: you probably still have a box of those tiny plastic bricks somewhere, still in perfect working order. This is because it is made of ABS plastic and is strong enough to last for a very long time.

So, out of the two options, PLA has more environmentally friendly properties, but apart from plastics there is more to consider.

What about energy consumption?

3D printing takes time; we are talking about more than several hours and up to several days to print an object.

For example, this little sheep figurine will take a little over 2 hours to print, while this moon lamp clock at least 3 days, during which your printer will work all the time. Sounds like a lot of power, doesn’t it?

Despite the extended printing times, you’ll be happy to know that the cost of running a 3D printer won’t leave you with an extremely high electric bill.

Much depends on the power of your printer and the temperature required by your design. For example, the Procan Flashforge Creator costs around three cents per hour, while the Monoprice Mini Delta can cost as little as a penny per hour.

It all sounds reasonable, but put in the context of other manufacturing processes like inkjet or machine milling, 3D printers actually consume more energy. As we mentioned earlier, the flip side is that 3D printing doesn’t waste as much raw material.

Either way, while it doesn’t cost you a lot of money to run a 3D printer, being mindful of power consumption and saving electricity is overall better for our environment.

Stay on top of your energy consumption

Most of the energy used in 3D printing comes from heating the nozzle which melts the plastic, and also heating the heated print bed if you have one.

As we saw earlier, PLA filament melts at a lower point than ABS, thus requiring less energy to print. However, if you are using ABS filament for your object, you will also need a heat bed to prevent warping, adding additional heating needs.

Choosing PLA filament is definitely the low power option. Still, to get an idea of ​​the power consumption of your prints, you need to use an energy monitor for a detailed report.

Power differences

Paying attention to the number of watts your 3D printer uses will also give you an idea of ​​how much power your 3D printer uses compared to other options.

To understand how 3D printers differ in power, we can compare the two previously mentioned printers. The affordable Mini Delta Monoprince uses around 60W during the printing process, while the larger and more expensive Flashforge Creator Pro uses 250W.

Modified 3D printer with LED light upgrade.

This demonstrates a huge difference between the available 3D printers when determining which model could be the most environmentally friendly.

Another consideration is purchasing a 3D printer with a built-in closure which will help prevent heat loss and further reduce your power consumption.

If you are still concerned about the power consumption of your 3D printer, it should be borne in mind that, in the context of other electronic devices, it is still quite energy efficient.

While the power consumption of the two 3D printers we compared earlier ranges from 0.07 kWh to 0.24 kWh, a typical desktop PC will use around 1.05 kWh, well over four times that amount.

Object life

Determining the impact of 3D printing is complex and depends on several factors, but one simple thing to keep in mind is, “How long will my object last?” ”

Creating things that are useful and likely to be stored for years to come will help prevent plastic from ending up unnecessarily in the ground. This is something that is easy to forget when there are thousands of cool and beautiful designs to print.

When thinking about your next 3D printed object, start by asking yourself if this is something you will keep for a long time, or if it can be recycled, reused, or donated if you don’t want it anymore.

So is 3D printing environmentally friendly?

Overall, the use of plastics, the power consumption of printers, and the potential for an object to have a short lifespan mean that ultimately 3D printing isn’t entirely green, but it is certainly going in the right direction.

Choosing a renewable material like PLA is a better option for recycling, while advances in 3D printing technology will over time produce machines that use less energy. The additive manufacturing process also wastes much less material than previous manufacturing methods, making it a worthwhile innovation to pursue.

With more environmentally conscious designers and manufacturers, we are starting to see the 3D printhead in a positive direction.


Three cubes printed in 3 dimensions equally spaced on a pink and blue gradient background
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