Despite plastic’s undeniable versatility, the pollution that the world’s extensive use of plastic generates has intensely devastating effects on the environment, from build up on our own streets and landfills, to the ocean. It is estimated that more than one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals die every year as a result of plastic pollution, a disturbing estimate when considering the long term these rates will have on our environment and the ocean ecosystem.
Plastic is widely recycled, but recycling efforts only amount to around 10% of the estimated 300 million tons of plastic that is produced every year. However, 3D printing companies are capitalizing on plastic pollution by collecting plastic gathered through ocean clean-ups and recycling it into 3D printer filaments to create new products. Some 3D printers are able to extrude waste plastic automatically before converting them into raw materials for 3D printing.
How Can 3D Printing Reduce Plastic?
3D printing is a very exciting prospect in the management of plastic pollution and waste management in general. 3D printing is able to create items to any shape of form, depending on the size of the printer.
However, 3D printing is not an entirely waste-free process. Failed prints, test prints, and support structures that are only used during printing are all waste products generated through 3D printing.
While there seems to be few specific objects that can significantly reduce the need for traditional plastics on their own, it is the use of recycled waste plastic to create new products that seems to be the main benefit regarding plastic waste. The plastics used for 3D printing can also be very durable, and are used in car bodywork and appliances, meaning less plastic will be wasted if products break or become faulty less often. The increased ability to create personalized items also has the potential to reduce waste across a number of industries, and has environmental impacts outside of plastic pollution as well. Being able to print objects from work or at home also reduces the need for international shipping and as a result, reduces greenhouse gases from transportation.
What Products Have Been Made With 3D Printing?
Street furniture has been created through 3D printing by a Rotterdam-based company. The street benches are designed to fit four people, and are made with plastic pellets from city waste.
Personalized shoe insoles have also been created through a collaboration between Dr. Scholl and a 3D printed insole manufacturer Wiivv. By taking several images of a person’s feet and using over 400 mapping points from their feet, insoles are able to be made exactly to the person’s individual foot structure and offer support in precise areas. This would reduce the amount of plastic-based insoles that are discarded due to problems with fit, support, or comfort.
In the construction industry, creating environmentally friendly building practices is a priority. 3D printing building materials directly on site will reduce the need to have materials transported from other sites or production plants. It may also make it easier to create specific building components that may otherwise be difficult or costly to create. As a result, less plastic waste will be generated if more accurate building materials or components are made to measure for projects, reducing errors.
In medicine, 3D printed casts for broken bones have taken center stage, along with 3D printed prosthetic limbs and knee replacements. A scanner collects information on the broken bone, and a personalized cast is then built using that information. Not only do 3D printed casts allow for better hygiene and monitoring of an injury or wound, but it is estimated to reduce healing time by around 40%. Additionally, traditional plaster casts for broken bones run the risk of distorting if they are wet. As 3D printed casts are waterproof, it reduces the need to reshape or remake casts that have become distorted.
The environmental benefits 3D printing is less on what can be printed to reduce the need for plastic overall, and more on how plastic waste already generated and polluting both the land and the ocean can be recycled to make new products. Personalization has the potential to reduce the demand for plastic products as users are less likely to discard and purchase other plastic products if they don’t accurately meet their needs.