Despite the numerous advantages of 3D printing, the process itself generates large amounts of waste.
As a provider of sustainable materials for 3D printing, Filamentive is regularly asked by customers, researchers and industry professionals about the true scale of plastic waste generated by 3D printing.
We often write about the 3D printing waste problem and this article will seek to provide a quantifiable estimate of the amount of plastic waste arising from 3D printing – deduced from available data – focussing on:
- Number of 3D printers in operation
- Usage per printer (kg)
- Wastage generated (%)
It’s important to note that this article relies on numerous sources – both primary data and also publicly available, secondary research. Aggregating said data has been used to deduce the amount of plastic waste generated from FDM / FFF (filament-based), per annum.
As Filamentive is a UK filament brand, the information presented focuses on the United Kingdom (UK).
How many 3D printers are there in the UK?
As per Ultimaker, the UK has some 168,000 3D printers installed as of 2019. Admittedly, no reference is made as to which 3D printing technology this covers – so the assumption is that this number covers all forms of 3D printing – e.g. FDM, SLA, MJF.
That said, how can we estimate the proportion of FDM / FFF 3D printing users in the UK? In short, the 3D printing operators using filament-based machines. Thankfully, the research organisation, HSSMI, has provided a reliable value. In their report, Creating a Closed Loop Supply Chain for 3D Printing Filaments, it states that 66% of printers on the market are FFF.
Aggregating this with the Ultimaker metric, it can be inferred that – in 2019 – there were just over 110,000 filament-based 3D printers in the UK.
That said – at the time of writing – this is based on data almost four years old. So we must ask ourselves, how much has 3D printing grown since 2019? To explore this, online manufacturing platform, Hubs, provides estimated 3D printing market growth statistics:
2020 = 21%
2021 = 20%
Of course, this is an estimate of total market growth rate – encompassing factor such as hardware, software, materials – so it could be inaccurate to say that the increase in number of 3D printer units is directly allied to market growth.
Taking a conservative estimate, let’s assume that there was no market increase in 2020 – due to the pandemic.
Applying the 2021 growth rate of 20% only, it can be estimated that there were 132,000 3D printers in the UK in 2022.
How much filament does the average 3D printer use?
In early 2019, Filamentive issued a survey (>200 respondents) to assess the state of material sustainability in 3D printing – encompassing material choice, wastage and preference for recycled filament.
Taking a conservative, the majority of 3D printer users surveyed use ≤2 kg / month (24 kg annually). Now, it must be stated that Filamentive’s customers are mostly business and industry users – either 3D printing for ‘profit’ or 3D printing within an organisation. Because of this, it can be argued that Filamentive customers use more filament than the average 3D printer owner.
Researching average 3D printer filament consumption further, this All3DP’s article provides further insight:
Amount of material used per week
Pro rata, per year (converted to kg)
Again, taking a conservative view, let’s assume that the frequent user value of 8.7 kg of material annually is an average of all users, proportionally.
Aggregating this with the estimated 132,000 FFF 3D printer users in the UK, the estimated, annual filament consumption is 1,148,400 kg.
How much waste is generated by filament-based 3D printers?
As part of the Supply Chain Engagement section of the aforementioned report, HSSMI surveyed five organisations. The key question pertaining to waste generated being, “Waste(kg/month)”:
It’s important to note that in this report, HSSMI define (3D printing) waste as “…failed or discarded prints“.
|Organisation #||Filament usage (kg/month)||Waste (kg/month)||Wastage (%)|
Averaging out the wastage factor (%) of all five organisations calculates a median waste rate of 33 percent amongst 3D printing users.
Aggregating this with the estimated 1,148,400 kg of plastic consumption (for filament), the estimated plastic waste generated by filament-based 3D printing in the UK is approx. 379,000 kg per year.
The growing problem of 3D-printed plastic waste
Whilst 379,000 kg of waste may seem insignificant – especially when compared to more mainstream applications for plastic – it is certainly notable as far as 3D printing goes, and evidently, likely to be a growing problem in the years to come as 3D printing adoption increases.
There is no established end of life (EoL) processing system in additive manufacturing for 3D printed polymer parts. Because of this, plastic waste generated from 3D printing is rarely recycled and therefore, will typically end up in landfill.
Being conscious of the true scale of 3D printing waste is important if we are to see sustainable consumption of (plastic) materials for 3D printing in the years to come.
Prevention is better than the cure and the onus is on 3D printing users to adapt 3D printing usage to reduce environmental impact.
Naturally, it is unrealistic to assume “zero waste” 3D printing, and in these instances, circular economy solutions should be considered to mitigate plastic pollution.
For casual users, this may be in the form of upcycling solutions; frequent users may wish to pay for 3D printing waste recycling boxes, and heavy users may even wish to explore the idea of remanufacturing their own waste, creating 100% recycled filament, in-situ.