With 3D printing usage in the UK growing, a hidden environmental cost lurks behind the benefits of additive manufacturing: the predominance of non-recycled filament

With over 99% of the market still relying on non-recycled materials, the plastic waste problem continues to mount, casting a shadow on the potential of 3D printing technology. However, there’s a silver lining in the form of recycled filament, offering a beacon of hope for both the environment and the industry.

3D printing with recycled materials minimises the creation of new waste by reutilising existing materials. The process exemplifies the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra, turning potential waste into valuable products with minimal by-product.

Drawing insights from an academic study, this post delves into the potential of recycled materials in 3D printing.

Recycled Materials help preserve Natural Resources

It is estimated that we need 1.75 planets to provide the resources for our consumption and manage the associated waste. 

Our planet’s resources are finite, and every spool of recycled filament contributes to the preservation of these precious commodities. From water to minerals, the conservation impact of recycled 3D printing materials cannot be overstated.

The demand for new, raw materials has far-reaching impacts, including habitat destruction and pollution. Recycled filaments offer a respite from this demand, reducing the need for raw material extraction and its associated environmental degradation. 

Reducing Carbon Footprint with Recycled Filament

Greenhouse gas emissions – such as CO2 – are the leading contributor to climate change.

The use of recycled materials for 3D printing has a tangible impact on reducing carbon emissions. Traditional manufacturing processes are energy-intensive and carbon-heavy, but by turning to recycled filaments, 3D printer operators can slash these emissions significantly. It’s not merely a reduction; it’s a redefinition of manufacturing that aligns with our urgent climate goals.

According to Prusa Research, recycled filament lowers CO2 emissions by over 50%, versus the equivalent virgin material.

The Energy Efficiency of Recycled Materials

Energy consumption in the 3D printing process is a critical factor. The production of virgin plastic filaments demands a high energy expenditure. In contrast, recycled materials are less energy-intensive, reducing the overall ecological footprint of 3D printing. This energy efficiency isn’t just good for the planet; it’s also a cost-saving measure for operators.

A 2023 study found that recycling (ABS) plastic used in 3D printing takes about 54% less energy than producing virgin ABS filaments.

Using Recycled Filament Diverts Waste from Landfill

The main problem with landfill is their release of methane gas, which again, is a direct contributor to climate change. In the UK, we send more than 15 million tonnes of rubbish to landfill annually.

Each spool of recycled filament represents a victory in the battle against landfill waste. By repurposing what would otherwise contribute to the growing plastic problem, we support the cycle of use and reuse that is fundamental to a cleaner environment. The diversion of waste also exemplifies the principle of circular economy, which is central to sustainable development.

Towards Sustainable 3D Printing with Recycled Materials

The shift towards recycled filaments in the 3D printing industry is more than just an environmental imperative—it is a smart operational choice. Operators who adopt recycled materials not only reap cost benefits but also distinguish themselves as leaders in the movement towards a sustainable future.