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.
2021 update: Filamentive research suggests that approximately 10% of 3D prints become waste. To quantify, if we assume there are currently, 232,000 3D printers installed in the UK and the average 3D printer (operator) uses 12 kg of filament annually – the estimated waste plastic generated by UK 3D printing users in 2021 can be inferred as 278,400 kg.
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 prints – FastCompany 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 (Polyvinyl 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 is often the first thought of many.
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.
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 – Recycled Filament for 3D printing
Filamentive is the UK-leading supplier of sustainable 3D printing filament. Filamentive’s fundamental aim is to reduce the environmental impact of 3D printing for educators, engineers, and makers worldwide – without compromising quality. Plastic is a global problem – 90% of the material is produced from non-renewable sources and less than 10% of plastic is recycled. It’s a problem that is only growing in scale, as more than 400 million tons of plastic is produced each year.
Filamentive is committed to drive positive change in 3D printing – making a tangible impact to increase resource efficiency, reduce environmental impact, and harness a Circular Economy This includes: Using recycled materials where possible 100% recyclable filament spools and exploring solutions to recycle 3D printing waste back into reusable material.