As someone who likes to create new things, I have been following the 3D Printing revolution from the sidelines for a couple of years. Until now, getting in the game required spending over $1,000 and dozens of hours, which for a toy or at best hobby, was just too much for us. Now with the price of entry level models around the same price I paid for a good inkjet photo printer (about $300) a few years ago, I am seriously considering buying one. But, are 3D Printers green?
To answer this, let’s look at what materials they use, what they can make and what that replaces.
The most common 3D printing method is extrusion deposition, which is basically melting something and building a structure with that melted string. The most common material is acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic, which is not commonly recyclable and has an unpleasant (probably unhealthy) odor when printing. Fortunately that is not the only material available and now many printers can print with polyethylene terephthalate (PET, aka #1 plastic) which is highly recyclable and odor free. My favorite material for consumer grade 3D printing is polylactic acid (PLA) which is plant derived and biodegradable, but not recyclable. I think PLA is greenest of the materials used for 3D Printing today. Depending on what you choose to print with can have a big impact on how green 3D printing is.
How you use your 3D printer can also have a big impact on how green it is. If you print little throw away chotchkies, regardless of the materials you use, the results are not green. However, if you print items that serve a useful function, the impact can be very positive.
I can think of all sorts of useful things to print out, but two categories of items stand out in my mind. These are anything that helps kids learn and things needed to repair broken items.
I recently got a chance to see a heart gears which is a combination of interlocking gears in the 3-dimensional shape of a heart. Imagine how making and experimenting with that can open the minds of our kids as well as teach them how not to pinch their fingers in the gears.
I have used 3D Printing (through Shapeways.com) to have specific items made for my solar jewelry crafting and I helped a friend by creating a replacement part for a now discontinued large format printer. He needed a specially shaped bushing that was no longer available and apparently quiet prone to breaking on this model plotter/printer. The manufacturer told him he’d have to get a new printer for hundreds of dollars, but instead we were able to model and have the part printed for about $10. If I had a 3D printer at home, it would have been even cheaper. Fixing things means less raw materials going into making new things, less waste to dispose and lots of avoided shipping miles.
In the future, I can see 3D printing changing the way repair parts, as well as new items, are created. Instead of having to injection mold, store and ship hundreds of thousands of spare parts that may end up never being used, manufactures can instead make the 3D designs available online and let the consumers either print the parts at home or a local 3D Printing shop. This could save tons of wasted materials, lots of energy on shipping and storage and make products much more repairable.
At the end of the day, 3D printing can be green, but it really depends on what materials you use and what you make. I think the most green thing you can do is inspire and teach kids to think differently and tap into their imaginations.
p.s. the 3D printer I really want is the Printrbot Jr. V2 at $599 as a kit – hint hint