While 3D printing is relatively new technology for most people, expectations are high for the future. Whether it’s extended space travel or the creation of transplant organs, the potential implementations are exciting. In the long run this printing technology will surely be beneficial, but in its infancy there are some issues still being discovered.
One such issue under heavy scrutiny right now is the environmental impact. Once heralded as a supreme green technology, a few eco-concerns for 3D printing have emerged. Though technology varies widely -- from industrial printers to hobbyist home set-ups -- here are a few of the environmental issues at the forefront.
Perfecting the Prototype
As an emerging technology, 3D printing is inherently imperfect. In some cases getting the design just right requires substantial trial and error. This creates issues as users end up printing numerous “throw-away” versions until they get the perfect model. This not only creates more plastic waste, but also fosters a wasteful and polluting printing process. As 3D printing becomes more precise moving forward, this issue should all but disappear.
When you have super-heated plastics and polymers as part of the printing process, fumes are going to factor in. Though research is underway to understand the emissions from 3D printing, early indications suggest you may want to limit exposure. Fumes vary by the material used, but tests have shown 3D printers can be considered high emitters of ultra fine particles (UFP). These particles are known to cause airway inflammation, lung function changes and altered heart rate. On the plus side, most UFP levels are relatively low -- about the same as you’d expect from cooking indoors.
If you’re examining the energy usage of 3D printing, it’s important to consider scale. An at-home printer is clearly going to use much less electricity than an industrial application. However, when you compare energy usage to similar technologies, 3D printing really sucks up the juice. Printers used for large-scale manufacturing have been shown to use as much as 100 times more electricity than traditional injection molding machines. This is due to both the heating required to melt the plastics and the requirement that some machines are always on.
Across the full spectrum of 3D printers, there’s quite a bit of difference in how much waste is created. Industrial applications for manufacturing have proven to be especially efficient, but emerging inkjet 3D printers available to everyday consumers can waste up to 40 percent of their polymer during the printing process. Additionally, some models use plastics that cannot be recycled. While recycled options are available, these materials lose some of their strength in the recycling process and deteriorate faster.
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