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Humankind always thrived to progress and upgrade their tools, homes and surroundings, creating more comfortable lives and obtaining quicker solutions. In modern countries especially thanks to technology, the creativity and gears to attain end results swifter practically know no boundaries.

As we`re all well aware though, although not everyone is doing his utmost to fix it, progress or sometimes greed if I may, is also causing irreparable damage. Undeniably, development yields pollution which is directly hitting our sea, rivers and atmosphere, resulting in the climate change we are witnessing. All this is ultimately affecting not only specific zones, or countries, but our one and only planet Earth in its entirety, our home.

Since there is no planet B for the time being at least, some exciting alternatives like 3D printing are being welcomed and utilised across the board. Let us see how 3D printing can give our planet`s climate some much needed respite, creating valid options for manufacturers to minimise or reduce waste coming from various sectors in the supply chain like transportation, and also the benefits organisations and consumers can acquire.

How is 3D Printing Sustainable

A recent European Commission study shows that additive manufacturing (3D printing) is set to change the construction, manufacturing, fashion and even medicine realms as we know them forever, in a good way of course.

In fact the study goes by saying that by 2050 3D printing could save up to 90% of raw materials needed for manufacturing! This stands out as one of the greatest advantages when using 3D printing since it will reduce drastically the need of raw materials by industries, also meaning a proportionate decrease in the extraction of natural resources and the emissions plus the waste they generate.

3D Printing Mechanics

In a nutshell, additive manufacturing is the process by which 3D objects are created layer on layer by heating materials using 3D printers. These machines read and follow a computer-generated file or design.

Utilising this method, the printing machine will be fed only the right amount of material, unlike the traditional manufacturing machines which are more wasteful.

3D printing today is one of the most groundbreaking processes manufacturing an array of items such as medical equipment, prosthetics, consumer products, automotive parts, homes and building components, and even food.

Materials Utilised for 3D Printing

As one can presume there are different kind of materials which can be applied to a 3D printer, from the obvious one such as plastic to resin, but when a company is 3D printing with sustainability in mind then the decisions around which material to use change.

Thermoplastic polymer for example is a popular choice for additive manufacturing mainly for its durability, however we can`t say that it is sustainable as it is not biodegradable and still often demands virgin petrochemicals to create.

Do not despair though as recycled materials together with other eco-friendly resins are on the rise, so going forward industries can and ideally should utilise these type of materials to 3D print sustainably.

One such popular material we can mention here is Polylactic Acid (PLA), which is becoming an increasingly widespread alternative material to thermoplastic polymer. PLA is a plant-based bioplastic made from corn or sugarcane. However, PLA still holds plastic and will leave microplastic residue, so although it is marketed as sustainable and biodegradable (breaks down much faster than petroleum-based plastics but only in proper environments) it will leave its mark in residue just the same, but on a much lower scale when compared to other materials.

Thus, though PLA is certainly an upgrade from traditional thermoplastics, we can`t as such label it eco-friendly, as it is still a flawed argument of sustainability for 3D printing.

Having said that, the trend as the industry develops and evolves is the application of more recycled materials which are on the rise, so that is encouraging. Certain companies are already offering valid options in the form of recycled material filament for 3D printers such as: Prusament, Closed Loop Plastics, FormFutura and Kimya.

3D Printing in the Community

Some tangible examples on how 3D printing is leaving an impact are:

Regenerating Marine Ecosystems – 3D printing marine-grade sandstone for the regeneration of depleted coral reefs

Microchip Prototyping – following the scarcity of microchips during and post-pandemic, 3D printing came to the rescue, with IBM being involved in this, although we still have yet to see full development in this sector, which avoids extraction of huge quantities of minerals and metals from Earth, while also creating local jobs and reducing the reliance on other countries which sometimes may be also potentially hostile

Disaster Relief – 3D printing is increasingly supplying parts like water pipe fittings and washers to aid disaster-stricken communities assisting in rebuilding infrastructures

Go Green with 3D Printing – Pros & Cons

Therefore using sustainable material for 3D printing is a no-brainer, I hear you say. Well, not exactly, as like everything else it also has its challenges.

The obvious advantages when using sustainable materials for additive manufacturing is that they`re creating jobs, it`s eco-friendly, while different possibly cheaper shapes can be created leaving less residue and pollution than traditional methods.

On the other hand, it can still be inefficient for large projects as materials aren`t always available, while the industry can also face regulatory challenges in line with a specific country`s laws or rules. For example, one hot discussion is the 3D printing of guns, but it can also be used for counterfeiting, or just stealing someone else`s design and replicating it.

In Conclusion

3D printing has indeed opened up a plethora of opportunities for companies to minimise pollution, by reducing the use of shipping and freight for example, while rearranging their logistics to better reflect on carbon emissions.

Industries should explore and invest in sustainable 3D printing as one of the best way forward to safeguard our world from more toxic emissions and lessening carbon footprint, while also benefitting from the advantages this type of manufacturing is bringing to the table.

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