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How Sustainable is PLA?

“Is PLA is sustainable?” “Is PLA is biodegradable?” “Is PLA is compostable?” “Is PLA is recyclable?”.

As a brand of 3D printer filament, questions like this are received on an almost daily basis. As sustainability is central to our business model and ethos, we feel it is our duty to interrogate the cliché environmental claims.

This post seeks to therefore explore the credibility of each of the four key environmental benefits put forward by industry and marketers alike.


3D Printing

Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) is one of the main types of 3D printing. FDM is an additive manufacturing process in which a thin filament of plastic wire feeds a 3D printer; the print head melts it and extrudes it onto a build plate.

PLA is the most popular 3D printing filament material – as exemplified in a recent survey which shows that more than 95% of 3D printing users use PLA. 

Most Popular 3D Printer Filament Materials

Is PLA Sustainable?

Growth of Crops Used to Make PLA

Bioplastic refers to plastic made from plant / biological material instead of oil. Polylactic acid / polylactide (PLA) is an example of a bioplastic.

However, bioplastics – such as PLA – compete for land with food crops. According to the Guardian, bioplastics need several million acres of farmland, which reduces the space available for food crops growth. However, this problem may be over-stated as according to an estimation by European Bioplastics, “… the land area used to grow biomass for the production of bioplastics in 2017 corresponded to 0.016 percent of the global agricultural area, 97 percent of which are used to grow food and feed. Even with the predicted high growth-rates… the land-use share would only slightly increase to up to 0.021 percent of the agricultural area by 2022.”

Is PLA Biodegradable?

Biodegrading of Plastic

Biodegradability refers to the ability of a material to decompose after interactions with biological elements. Whilst PLA is biodegradable, it does so very slowly. Analysts estimate that a PLA bottle could take up to 1000 years to decompose in a landfill. Even NatureWorks, the world’s largest producer of PLA, have openly accepted that its products would not fully break down on landfill sites. 

Is PLA Compostable? 

Composting Process

While biodegradable materials are designed to break down within landfills, compostable materials require special composting conditions.

According to Elizabeth Royte, writing in Smithsonian, ‘PLA is said to decompose into carbon dioxide and water in a controlled composting environment in fewer than 90 days. However, ‘controlled composting environment’ refers to industrial composting facility heated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit and fed a steady diet of digestive microbes. 

Whilst this proves PLA is biodegradable / compostable, again it’s a feasibility versus practicality argument. The Guardian found that only a handful of anaerobic digesters exist in Britain, and even then without a centralised collection infrastructure the average consumer is unable to access such facilities.  

Is PLA Recyclable?

Recycling Process

As concluded in a 2016 academic paper, “…mechanical recycling presented the lowest environmental impact…”. The (mechanical) recycling process of PLA includes the following steps: separation, grinding, washing, drying, extrusion, cooling, granulation and sieving of recycled PLA. 

Whilst recycling PLA is certainly feasible it is not necessarily practical. Because PLA of different origin than regular plastic, it must be kept separate when recycled, otherwise it can contaminate the recycling stream – thus making such streams unsaleable. As the BBC stated in February 2019, the technology for plant-based compostables has come so far that it is hard to tell which is plastic and which is bio-plastic (PLA). 

Some 3D printing users are recycling their (PLA) 3D printing waste by shredding failed / unwanted 3D-prints and using a desktop extruder to remanufacture into filament. Whilst this is indeed a useful way to recycle 3D printing waste and avoid landfill, it is far from cheapmany desktop extruders will set you back hundreds of pounds – and many challenges exist, as we discussed in a recent blog post. 

Conclusion

PRODUCTION GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS INCLUDING BIOGENIC CARBON UPTAKE (Natureworks.com)

Whilst there are elements of greenwashing when it comes to the marketing of PLA, the evidence still suggests it is a step in the right direction in our attempts to reduce the consumption of non-renewable petroleum. Not only is PLA plant-based, but [according to Natureworks] it also emits a fraction of the greenhouse gases compared to other plastics, as well as much less energy intensive.

Specific to 3D printing, the improvement of 3D printing hardware and slicing software is reducing print failures and thus wastage. Of course the ease of 3D printing will still breed masses of unwanted prints, however, low cost, upcycling solutions do exists, as we discussed in our recent blog: What to do with Failed Prints and 3D Printing Waste.

In order to work towards a circular economy framework for bioplastics such as PLA, investment is required to catalyse technological innovation in order to develop a sustainable recovery infrastructure for bioplastics such as PLA. Once achieved this will give rise to further landfill avoidance and an increase in PLA recycling – be it mechanical recycling or composting.

Filamentive

Filamentive PLA 3D Printer Filament

Whilst at its core 3D printing is fundamentally less wasteful than traditional, subtractive manufacturing methods, academic research has found that “material sustainability is an issue that can no longer be ignored due to wide adoption of 3D printing”. The use of plastic as a feedstock has the potential to exacerbate the global plastic epidemic unless we can find a sustainable solution.

Filamentive, a brand of high quality 3D printing filament, with a primary objective to drive environmental change in 3D printing.

Recycled PLA – sourced from post-industrial extrusion waste – is used in lieu of virgin PLA where possible – in fact in 2018, more than half of all PLA filament produced was made from recycled sources, resulting in:

  • Reduced environmental impact of plastic-rich products
  • Minimised plastic being sent to the diminishing landfill sites
  • Avoided the consumption of the Earth’s oil stocks
  • Consumed less energy than producing new, virgin polymers

More information of the Filamentive filament production process can be found here.



Hopefully this has been an interesting and informative read – feel free to visit
filamentive.com for more information or email us.

3D Printer Filament Comparison: PLA versus ABS

PLA and ABS are two of the most popular 3D printer filament materials. This comparison will hopefully give you more knowledge on both materials and help you select the best filament for your project.

ABS – Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene

  • Sturdy, strong
  • High melting point
  • Not easy to print

ABS is a very common thermoplastic known in the injection molding industry. It is used for toys such as LEGO, constructions in the automotive industry and in protective headgear. Compared to PLA, parts printed in ABS tend to have higher strength, flexibility and last longer. However, ABS filaments tend to warp and it is an absolute must to have a heated bed for successful prints. ABS also tends to give out more toxic and unpleasant fumes while being printed and hence it is extremely important to have good ventilation while printing.

Did you know? Our ABS 3D Printer Filament is strong, minimal warp and contains up to 64% recycled material.


PLA – Polylactic Acid

  • Biodegradable, derived from corn starch / sugarcane
  • Shinier / Smoother finish
  • Easy to print
  • Very little issues of shrinkage, warp or cracks while printing

PLA is one of the most popular bioplastics that is usually used in plastic cups, disposable tableware or food packaging. Along with a much lower printing temperature compared to ABS, PLA does not require a heated bed to be printed. However, it is important to note that PLA is a lot more brittle than ABS. As a result, PLA is more commonly used in applications where form is more important than function. The overall 3D printing experience would be a lot better with PLA as it does not give off an unpleasant odour while printing.

Did you know? Our PLA 3D Printer Filament low warp, has limited smell and premium print quality – plus contains a high percentage of recycled material.


With similar price ranges between the two materials, it often comes down to the application of the print as to which material is superior. Although ABS has superior mechanical properties, it is a lot harder to print with and requires a heated bed. On the other hand, PLA is ideal for prints where aesthetics are important.


ePLA engineering PLA – best of both worlds?

Do you know our ePLA range of products aims to take the best aspects of PLA and ABS and combine them into a single material?

An engineering-grade PLA filament, with performance comparable to ABS. Features a heat resistance of 95°C< (after annealing) and the ability to print at speeds up to 120mm/s. ePLA gives a semi-matte finish. Tough and strong PLA.

With the mechanical properties of ABS and the ease of printing of PLA, e-PLA might just suit the exact requirement for your next project! Check it out here!


What to do with Failed Prints and 3D Printing Waste? 

What to do with Failed Prints and 3D Printing Waste? 

Recently we sent out a material sustainability survey (thank you to those who contributed). One question was What do you consider as the biggest cause/s of 3D printing waste? – as you can see from the results table below, 80.98% of respondents indicated that failed prints was the biggest cause. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


In a previous blog post, we had briefly discussed about the possibility of using failed prints for extrusion purposes. However, we understand that having such a set up can be expensive and impractical for someone doing 3D printing as a hobby.

As a big advocate for sustainability in the 3D printing world, one of the things that caught our attention recently was the endeavours of Devin at Make Anything and Michael at Teaching Tech.

They had both made attempts to recycle then upcycle failed prints. They took failed prints, support materials and purging elements and shredded them to much finer parts. Then, they laid it all out onto a baking dish / moulds and left it for a short period of time until the plastics combined and took on the form of the container.  It was interesting to see how failed prints can be used in other ways, apart from being thrown into an extruder to be made into filament again. We believe that these could potentially be options for makers around the world to explore in terms of recycling failed prints as they do not require much more expensive equipment to pull off.

These methods are further explained by their respective content creators as shown here:

Recycle waste 3D prints [Teaching Tech.]

Failed Print Recycling Revisited [Make Anything]

Recently, our friend Daniel Melville from HandyDan’s3DPrints demonstrated how he up-cycled failed prints into funky coasters.

HandyDans Upcycled Failed Prints

HandyDans Upcycled Failed Prints

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Moving forward

Whilst recycling failed prints and 3D printing waste from customers remains challenging for Filamentive as a business, we feel the methods discussed in this blog post at least provide a source of creative inspiration to those looking recycling & upcycle their 3D printing waste – especially if a filament extruder is not a viable option. 

Despite the challenges, recycling 3D printing waste has long been an aspiration of ours and we’re continuously researching the viability of a waste management service. Offering such a service one-day will truly help us move one step closer to achieving a circular economy and reduce – if not eliminate – plastic waste within 3D printing. Until such a solution is achieved, we will still continue to be the sustainable choice in 3D printing by committing to:

  • Using recycled material (post-consumer and post-industrial) where possible 
  • Avoid the use of new, virgin polymers to reduce energy and demand for raw materials. 
  • Utlise plant-based bioplastics when there is no recycled alternative
  • Forming strategic partnerships with recycling companies to use their waste streams to produce filament
  • Using 100% recyclable cardboard spools to further reduce waste and increase the recyclability of our products/packaging

Hopefully this has been an interesting and informative read – if you have any questions about recycled filament or indeed anything related to Filamentive, please email us.

PET vs PETg Filament – What’s The Difference?

“PET filament”, “PETg filament”, “PETG filament” “PET-G filament” – all of these are common names used in 3D printing. Whilst at first glance “PET” and “PETg” may appear to be the same material, their (incorrect) interchangeable use by material companies and 3D printer users alike can be misleading. This article explains the difference between the two filament materials and summarises the benefits and disadvantages of both. 


PET (Polyethylene terephthalate)

  • Higher working temperature
  • More rigid
  • More brittle

If you are looking to get a print out that is rather rigid, PET 3D printer filament is the right material for this occasion. It has a slightly higher working temperature compared to PETG and is rigid, much like PLA. Although prints made with PET are hard, they are prone to be broken easily. So be aware if you know that your part is going to be subjected to a considerable amount of stress as the plastic would break rather abruptly, with not much sign of plastic deformation.

Did you know? Our ONE PET 3D Printer filament contains 100% recycled content made from waste PET plastic bottles.

 

PETg (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol)

  • Has glycol added (hence the “g”)
  • Slightly more flexible
  • Greater impact resistance
  • Absorbs more moisture (Dehydrating PETg before use is a good idea)

PETg can simply be thought of as PET with glycol added. The addition of glycol allows the material to be slightly more flexible, but not as much as TPU or TPE. Having a little more flexibility allows parts to have a greater tolerance to impact compared to PET.  Be careful of how you store your PETG as the addition of glycol means that the material absorbs more moisture. Ensure that you keep your PETg 3D printer filament in an airtight environment or dehydrate it before use.

 

Technical Data Comparison

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

Whilst PET and PETg plastic 3D printer filament may sound as though they are very similar, it is important to remember that they offer different properties – which should be compared when choosing the most appropriate material for your project.

To summarise – where our regular PETg has a better impact resistance, ONE PET boasts superior technical properties such as tensile strength, not to mention the environmental benefit of 100% recycled content. 

Both and PETg plastic 3D printer filament can be found in our shop

Recycling Failed and Waste 3D Prints into Filament: Challenges

In response to growing interest into the area of recycled filament and the regular enquiries we receive regarding failed/waste 3D print recycling, we thought we’d take the time to clarify our position – this article specifically will focus on the challenges preventing us offering such a service (currently). 

Do you accept 3D printing waste?

Can you recycle failed prints?

Will you recycle our PLA waste back into PLA filament?

The example quotes above are just an overview of the types of emails, calls and enquiries we receive on a daily basis. As a provider of 3D printing filament made from recycled plastic, we feel it is necessary to explain the current challenges of recycling failed & waste 3D prints into recycled 3D printer filament.


Environmental Need

Whilst at its core 3D printing is fundamentally less wasteful than traditional, subtractive manufacturing methods, academic research has found that “material sustainability is an issue that can no longer be ignored due to wide adoption of 3D printing”. The use of plastic as a feedstock has the potential to exacerbate the global plastic epidemic unless we can find a sustainable solution.

How Filamentive Produces Filament

Sustainability is at the heart of our business model. Where possible, recycled materials will be used to produce our 3D printer filament – we are the first filament brand to declare the recycled content of all 3D printing filament products, in accordance with ISO 14021.

Material sourcing

A careful selection criteria is in place in order to guarantee quality, consistent waste streams. We use both post-consumer waste – for example recycled PET bottles to produce our ONE PET filament, as well as post-industrial waste – such as material diverted from the waste stream during a manufacturing process, which is how we produce our PLA filament. 

Manufacturing

Plastic filament for 3D printers is produced by a process known as plastic extrusion. This process starts by feeding plastic material (pellets, granules, flakes or powders) from a hopper into the barrel of the extruder. The material is gradually melted by the mechanical energy generated by turning screws and by heaters arranged along the barrel. The molten polymer is then forced into a die, which shapes the polymer into the shape of filament – typically either 1.75mm or 2.85mm in diameter. The extrusion work is currently outsourced to our specialist producer who are able to guarantee quality, consistency and manufacturing at scale. 

Quality assurance

All feedstock streams are meticulously checked to ensure homogeneity. During extrusion, filament is measured by lasers from 2-axes, with an alarm bell sounding if the diameter falls outside our high standards. Filament is then wound onto bulk spools for visual inspection before it is put onto the individual spools to be packaged. Each batch produced undergoes a rigorous 3D printing test; if we’re not happy with the print quality then it won’t leave the factory, simple as.


Challenges

Quality control – High quality filament is essential for high quality 3D-prints. Should we ever begin to accept returned 3D printing waste, it is very difficult – perhaps impossible – to verify that the returned plastic is entirely Filamentive material. There is variation between PLA formulas – let alone different materials altogether – and so if the waste-stream is contaminated, the filament extruded will unusable. Furthermore, an academic study found that were significant deteriorations in most mechanical properties after three recycling cycles” – which basically means that even if waste could be successfully separated, the filament quality would be very low, and in order to maintain mechanical properties, virgin material needs to be added which may negate the environmental benefit. 

Logistics – Plastic has a high volume-to-weight ratio which can make collections less efficient than the collection of other recyclable materials that weigh more. This is a major reason why plastic waste recycling rates are low in general. In a nutshell, this basically means plastic is expensive to transport which is barrier for customers and suppliers alike. Also, as we do not yet manufacture in-house, any waste would then need to be sent to one of our production partners which will incur transport emissions and perhaps offset some – if not all – environmental benefits. 

Economics – As with any business strategy, the financials need to be viable. Should customers not be willing to send their waste back at their cost, we would need to add the cost of waste collection and recycling into our product price. Whilst this would make sense for customers for others it would be unfair if they are not taking advantage of a service they are in-directly paying for.

Market viability – even if all the the above challenges were addresses, there are still many market factors to consider, such as:

  • Would we need to create a new brand/sub-brand for this new filament?
  • What price are customers willing to pay for such a product?
  • If filament cannot be created whom can we sell/send waste to? 

Plastic bottles being collected by our partner, Tridea


Moving forward

Despite the challenges, recycling 3D printing waste has long been an aspiration of ours and we’re continuously researching the viability of a waste management service. Offering such a service one-day will truly help us move one step closer to achieving a circular economy and reduce – if not eliminate – plastic waste within 3D printing. Until such a solution is achieved, we will still continue to be the sustainable choice in 3D printing by committing to:

  • Using recycled material (post-consumer and post-industrial) where possible 
  • Avoid the use of new, virgin polymers to reduce energy and demand for raw materials. 
  • Utlise plant-based bioplastics when there is no recycled alternative
  • Forming strategic partnerships with recycling companies to use their waste streams to produce filament
  • Using 100% recyclable cardboard spools to further reduce waste and increase the recyclability of our products/packaging

Hopefully this has been an interesting and informative read – if you have any questions about recycled filament or indeed anything related to Filamentive, please email us.

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