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The 3D Printing Waste Problem

Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) is one of the main types of 3D printing. FDM is a 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.

However, 3D-printing is regarded as somewhat of a double-edged sword – whilst at its core 3D printing is fundamentally less wasteful than traditional, subtractive manufacturing methods, the use of plastic as a feedstock has the potential to exacerbate the global plastic problem unless we can find sustainable solutions.


Material Sustainability Survey

In early 2019 we sent out a survey (>200 respondents) to assess the state of material sustainability in 3D printing – encompassing material choice, wastage and preference for recycled filament.

Filament usage varied; it can be safely assumed that hobbyists use much less filament that a 3D-printing service business. Taking a median perspective, the majority of 3D printer users surveyed use ≤2 kg / month (24 kg annually).

It was certainly notable that all respondents confirmed that 3D printing creates waste to some degree (no one answering 0%). 6-19% was clearly the most popular answer. Taking a lower percentile average of 10%, we can aggregate this with 3D printer filament usage (kg) to calculate a 3D printing waste volume of 8 million kilograms (2020).

Respondents were then asked to choose their biggest cause/s of 3D printing waste – Test prints, unwanted prototypes, support structures, failed prints, other.

As exemplified here, the ease of 3D printing will still breed masses of unwanted printsFastCompany aptly used the terms “crapjects” to describe how “on-demand production and endless customisation could lead to dramatic increases in throwaway consumer products.”

Prevention > Cure

In regards to test-prints and unwanted prototypes, education of the ‘plastic problem’ could catalyse behaviour change, but that is of course easier said than done – especially when prototyping is the key reason why most use 3D printers in the first place. 


Support structures are critical for complex geometries – however on 3D printers capable of dual-extrusion, using a water-soluble filament – such as PVA (Polycinyl Alcohol) – is certainly advised as the polymer is completely water soluble, leaving no waste behind. 

As quantified in the survey, failed prints cause the biggest headache for 3D printer users, accounting for more than 80% of 3D printing waste. Such failures can be caused by a multitude of reasons – from bad quality filament and bed adhesion issues, to slicing errors and hardware failures. 

3D printing is one big learning curve, and the benefit of (most) failures is that you’ll hopefully learn to avoid it next time. At Filamentive, we are huge fans of the Simplify3D Print Quality Troubleshooting Guide – an extensive list of the most common 3D printing issues along with guidance that you can use to solve them. 


Recycling 3D Printing Waste

When waste cannot be avoided, recycling such waste is often the first thought of many.

As a provider of filament made from recycled plastic, recycling waste/failed 3D-prints is definitely an aspiration. Many operational and logistic concerns exist in regards to receiving waste, in addition to the obvious challenge of quality control. To explain our position, we wrote an article titled: Recycling Failed and Waste 3D Prints into Filament: Challenges

We also have a blog post on what to do with failed prints and 3D printing waste.

For ‘3D printer farms’ and businesses using high volumes of 3D printing, it may be shrewd for an in-situ recycling system to be developed. Our friends at Lancashire3D have achieved exactly that – 3D-printed waste is collected, shredded, and remanufactured – using a desktop 3D printing extruder – into 100% recycled filament. Whilst this certainly has the potential to reduce waste and also on-going material costs, it can be expensive in the first instance (buying equipment) and labour-intensive thereafter. 


Conclusion

Gartner suggests that there will be 6.7 million 3D printers sold by the year 2020. Even by assuming a conservative view that only 50% of that quantity will be achieved, this would still equate to more than 80 million kilograms of plastic filament needed to sustain the market. Taking a lower percentile average of 10% waste per 3D printer, we can aggregate this with 3D printer filament usage (kg) to calculate a 3D printing waste volume of 8 million kilograms (2020). Certainly minuscule compared to overall plastic waste, but significant nonetheless.

As said, prevention is better than the cure and the onus is certainly on individuals to evaluate their own use of 3D printing and adapt their 3D printing use to reduce environmental impact.

Of course this is not always possible and there will always be waste associated with 3D printing – it is therefore imperative that we see increased collaboration between material companies, 3D printer manufacturers and the recycling sector in order to work towards ‘closing the loop’ in 3D Printing / Additive Manufacturing and ultimately harness a circular economy


Filamentive

At Filamentive, environmental sustainability is central to our business model. In order to reduce the impact of (FFF) 3D printing and mitigate the Plastic Problem we commit to:

  • Using recycled materials (both 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
  • Using 100% recyclable cardboard spools to further reduce waste







One Response to The 3D Printing Waste Problem

  1. Robert says:

    Thanks for sharing wonderful information.

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