Although 3D printing technology is still in its early stages of development, the possibilities it has for the betterment of society are seemingly endless. Since the technology is becoming more affordable and widespread, commentators have lauded its potential for a revolution not only in the production of an endless assortment of goods, but also in environmental sustainability.
As we all know, the world is facing a huge ecological crisis. This is proving devastating to the whole of the environment, endangering all life on Earth and throwing the long-term future of human society into doubt. Many scientists are saying that the world’s governments are, on the whole, failing to do anywhere near enough to build economic and environmental sustainability. However, with the rise of the 3D printer, we may now collectively have a means of alleviating ecological devastation without having to wait on governments or big corporations to do something about it.
Ecologists such as Murray Bookchin had long argued that the main cause behind environmental devastation is that of centralised production. Centralised production, as the name suggests, is where goods are mass produced and distributed from single locations. To transport these goods, companies operate huge distribution networks, which are not only expensive but also emit vast amounts of greenhouse gases. Centralised production also requires massive expenditure of resources such as fuel, electricity and manpower, all of which cause their own level of environmental damage. Think of large industrial factories, which use unsustainable resources at every stage of production to produce unsustainable goods which are then distributed in an unsustainable fashion.
As 3D printers become more affordable and easier to use, however, production will inevitably become more and more decentralised. There will be less goods produced by individuals or businesses, but more individuals and businesses producing. This means that not only will local economies be boosted, but fuel emissions will be significantly lessened, as goods will no longer need to be transported anywhere near as far to consumers. Small desktop-style 3D printers are also said to only draw around the same amount of electricity as a laptop computer, and are therefore much ‘greener’ than conventional industrial-scale production methodologies. As the technology develops rapidly, within a few years we can predict even large-scale 3D printers will be far more energy efficient than they are now, as localised printing economies grow stronger and stronger.
Sustainable base materials
The part of 3D print production that is arguably most important to sustainability is the base materials used in printing. The most commonly used materials for 3D printing are types of plastic. Plastic is obviously not the most environmentally friendly material that could be used, but certain biodegradable forms are popular, particularly polylactic acid (PLA), which is corn-based and biodegradable. Either way, relying on these types of plastic filament is currently rather expensive and unsustainable, and of course incurs production and transportation costs just like in conventional production. In this regard, 3D printing can be seen as not quite as sustainable as it potentially could be.
However, in the last year there has already been movements towards developing 3D printer filament from recycled plastic. Technology is now being developed that allows owners of 3D printers to recycle old plastic at home and use it as base material. Not only is this inherently greener, even before printing – you’re reusing plastic rather than buying new, you’re bypassing the inefficiencies of large-scale recycling centres – it is also cheaper. Recycled plastic filament is not yet at the stage where it is ideal for printing use in the way that PLA is, but soon enough, the technology will be there.
We're getting there
Although 3D printing isn’t optimally sustainable just yet, it is already offering an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional modes of production. We will soon be at the stage where we have the means for local production of goods using locally recycled materials for local consumption. Even now, however, 3D printing is making huge waves in the way of environmental sustainability.
[Images by pschubert and hotblack]