Environment Effects of 3D Printing



3D printing is a technology that has been around for a lot longer than most people realize, as it is just recently that it has become more popular and accessible to the home user. Air quality, water, land, plants, and animals can all be impacted, either positively, negatively, or both, by various phases of the 3D printing process. There are many uses for 3D printing, but the main question we are hoping to answer in this subtopic is whether the benefits outweigh any environmental hazards. 

Rahul Sharma (2018), writes in Risks and Rewards: 3D Printing Health Hazards, “It’s safe to admit that 3D printing comes with unimaginably awesome applications that could raise the quality of human life to the next higher dimension. However, all these amazing applications are best explored with a firm and thorough understanding of the associated 3D printing health hazards.” Scientific studies have found that 3D printers can produce ultrafine particles (UFPs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and vapors during the printing process, and lingering in the air after the process has been completed. These UFPs could be unintentionally inhaled and cause problems in the lungs, such as asthma, or can cause cardiovascular problems.

“The 3D printer is a double-edged sword. It stands to transform technology and society for the better, but we also can’t ignore the potential negative consequences,” says Lyndsey Gilpin (2014) in The dark side of 3d printing: 10 things to watch. She agrees that there are many potential benefits to 3D printing such as lower transportation costs and waste. However, she describes several negative effects of 3D printing. Energy usage is 50 to 100 times higher than traditional production methods and can emit unhealthy particles into the air in home uses. Efforts to lessen environmental impact have worked for many years to reduce the use of plastic and 3D printing use plastic in several forms, contradicting those efforts. 

In What They Don’t Tell You About 3d Printing PLA, Michael Molitch-Hou (2019) describes one of the most popular plastic materials being used in 3D printing, polylactic acid (PLA). This material is created from starchy plants such as beets, potatoes, and corn. Corn is the most popular and is produced from what is called “field corn,” grown for industrial purposes rather than human consumption. The assumption is that PLA is biodegradable because it’s made from food starch. However, the process of composting this material takes a long time unless it’s processed in an industrial level facility designed for composting. Only 113 of these types of facilities exist in the United States, and only a quarter of these take waste from personal sources, so it would be unreasonable for home users to send their refuse for composting.  It is also assumed that PLA produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions. However, according to Molitch-Hou, “the fertilizers used to grow the initial corn or other feedstock can result in significant GHG emissions.” He goes on to suggest several alternative materials for printing, although he admits that even those may be toxic to the environment when disposed of.

Corey Clarke (2017), in his article New Research Evaluates Environmental Impact of 3D Printing, summarizes a research study conducted by Grenoble Alpes University in France. The research focused on the production of orthotic insoles, comparing a conventional production process with a 3D printing process. Four categories were studied: Human Health, Ecosystem Quality, Climate Change, and Resources. It was determined that 3D printing had 25% less impact than standard production on climate change, 35% less impact on resources, and 65% less impact on materials, and “that the 3D printing process itself is the most environmentally impacting element” It is noted that efforts should be made to decrease the amount of time needed to complete the process.

A study conducted by Umweltbundesamt (UBA), an environmental association in Germany, outlines the benefits and burdens of 3D printing on the environment. They looked at the materials used, technologies, and industrial support, evaluating 987 studies about 3D printing. In its argument based on direct environmental impacts, UBA states that “3D printing has contributed negatively to greenhouse gases,” charting out several 3D printing processes and the potential impact on our environment. (Vialva, 2018)  

As many benefits as there are in 3D printing, it seems there are equally as many potential hazards to the environment. People and industries who intend to use 3D printing should carefully weigh the benefits and the detriments of the equipment and materials they plan to use to determine if 3D printing is the right answer for their needs.

References

Clarke, C. (2017, May 24). New research evaluates the environmental impact of 3D printing. 3D Printing Industry. https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/new-research-evaluates-environmental-impact-3d-printing-114198/. 

Gilpin, L. (2014, March 5). The dark side of 3D printing: 10 things to watch. TechRepublic. https://www.techrepublic.com/article/the-dark-side-of-3d-printing-10-things-to-watch/. 

Molitch-Hou, M. (2019, April 16). What They Don't Tell You About 3D Printing PLA. Engineering.com. https://www.engineering.com/story/what-they-dont-tell-you-about-3d-printing-pla. 

Sharma, R. (2018, February 7). Risks and rewards: 3D printing health hazards. TechGenix. http://techgenix.com/3d-printing-health-hazards/. 

Vialva, T. (2018, July 17). Is 3D printing really as eco friendly as we think it is? 3D Printing Industry. https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/is-3d-printing-really-as-ecofriendly-as-we-think-it-is-136335/.