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Because You Asked

What’s The Environmental Impact Of 3D Printing?

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Like any exciting new technology, 3D printing has the ability to make a huge positive or negative impact on the environment.

Today’s Because You Asked post was written by and is republished with permission from EarthTalk®, from the editors of E – The Environmental Magazine.


Dear EarthTalk: What are the health and environmental risks of using a 3D printer to make stuff? –Will N., Pittsburgh, PA


Dear Will: As with most inventions, the thrill of the new has led to mass excitement surrounding 3D printing. The booming industry is expected to grow from nothing just a few years ago to some $4 billion by 2025. But some worry that our enthusiasm for 3D printing may be overshadowing some troubling health and environmental issues associated with the new technology.

3D printers heat plastic (usually a solid thermoplastic filament such as ABS or PLA) into a liquid and force it through a heated extrusion nozzle which in turn deposits it in thin layers onto a moving bed to form figures in predetermined shapes. But this process can send potentially harmful ultrafine particles (UFPs) and toxic fumes composed of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air surrounding the machinery where users can breathe them in. In industrial settings, proper ventilation systems would be required and workers would have to wear protective gear to minimize exposure to similar UFP and VOC levels — but nowadays anyone can buy or borrow a desktop 3D printer and use it at home or in school without taking any extra precautions. One study, as reported on Phys.org, equated the effects of printing a small 3D item to smoking a cigarette indoors. Effects can include nausea and headaches, particularly for those with pre-existing heart or respiratory problems.

A fully enclosed 3D printing system could mitigate exposure issues, but the major 3D printer manufacturers have yet to license the valuable patent held by one company to make this technology widely available. Until then, it’s up to users to make sure to operate desktop 3D printers in a well-ventilated area. Also, PLA, which is made from organic material such as cornstarch or sugar cane, seems to be a safer choice than petroleum-based ABS as far as fumes are concerned.

Besides the health effects, 3D printing can also be problematic for the environment. For starters, the plastic in 3D print material deteriorates significantly with each use, rendering recycling out of the question at this point. Another environmental hazard of 3D printing is the clear spike in electrical energy needed for the heating process. Using heat or lasers to melt plastic costs drastically more than traditional methods. When compared to injection molding, a 3D printer consumes almost 100 times the amount of energy on average to make an equivalent item.

On the plus side, 3D printing is an “additive” technology, meaning it only uses the exact amount of plastic source material needed, so little if any is wasted. Also, 3D printed objects tend to be much lighter than their traditional counterparts; this saves money, fuel, and carbon emissions when it comes to shipping. But critics maintain that the weight savings isn’t enough to counteract the energy intensity of the 3D printing process.

Whether we like it or not, 3D printing is here to stay, but only time will tell if the growing industry behind the phenomenon will be able to clean up its act as it enters mainstream.

SOURCES
3D Printing Industry
Environmental Science & Technology
ScienceDirect

Have you used a 3D printer? Share your thoughts on the new technology’s impact on the environment in the comments below!

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About the Author
EarthTalk, from the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine
EarthTalk, from the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

EarthTalk is produced by Doug Moss and Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network... more

  • Cindy W. 1 year ago
    Reading the posts have given me quite a bit of knowledge that I was unaware. It would be nice to do more on determining which brands of 3D printers to avoid or which have the highest safety ratings. I haven't purchased a 3D printer because I am not sure what advantages it would have for me to own this type of printer.
  • John H. 2 years ago
    WE utilize 24 fully automated 3D printers in our production department. Their are many different sources for the printers from PLA, ABS, Paper, mortar, polisoprene, etc. depending on the application and specifications. The source for this article is obviously somewhat dated. the levels of toxins put fourth by a household or non-commercials printer is minimal at best. As far as the referenced patent for fully enclosed printers, there are over 20 patents for various enclosed systems and EVERY manufacturer that I know of utilizes all the safety and health technologies. Also depending on the material and application, several products are explosive and/or volatile while in production. So there are many other consideration and factors that go into 3D productions outside of just the fumes. Just sayin...
  • Bonnie E. 2 years ago
    Hopefully the next generation of 3D printers can be more energy-efficient and have less toxic fumes. Are any companies working on those improvements?
    • Laura L. 2 years ago
      It's not the machine putting out toxic fumes, it's the ABS plastic film being heated to be formed into the 3D shapes that is releasing the toxic fumes, anytime plastic is heated it releases dangerous things, which is why Mayo Clinics and Johns Hopkins University say to never microwave or heat food in a plastic container because the toxins are released and absorbed into the food. They did mention in the article PLA plastic is derived from cornstarch and sugar cane and has less toxins, so I think we need education so that people choose the PLA instead when buying the printing materials, or we could petition to ban ABS.
    • Roberta R. 2 years ago
      The Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins don't say never to microwave or heat food in a plastic container. There are a couple of biased studies that were published on the websites of both institutions exploring theories, but they are of limited scope. CERTAIN plastics shouldn't be microwaved. Additionally, if you microwave with a container too many times, or for too long a duration to over-boil a substance, it could eventually degenerate the plastic. I've burned sauce in a microwave; it heated up SO hot that it melted the plastic. So of course I threw that container away. Use common sense, use only plastics that are designated as safe for microwave use, and avoid tin-foil-hat conspiracy theories. I've heard they cause cancer :)
    • Laura L. 2 years ago
      http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/microwaving-food-in-plastic-dangerous-or-not It is a fact that heating plastics releases things that are harmful to human health. The exact makeup of plastics changes depending on what type it is, supposedly certain types are deemed "safe to microwave" by the FDA, but the FDA is corrupt and have approved many things that aren't really safe for everyone and their tests to ensure "microwave safety" of a product are not based on all the ways a person might use them. If you look at most people's plastic food containers in their home that they use for food storage, there is warping and damage there. Technically it might have been "safe" to microwave in the beginning, but it isn't after a while. Rather than asking people to become experts on the subject, the easy way to put it is don't microwave plastic at all if you care about your health. I've dealt with serious health issues due to exposure to pesticides in my neighborhood and chemicals in normal household toiletries that are supposedly "safe for use" and therefore I am skeptical about what is on the market in the US and I will always be cautious because me and many people who are already sick don't have the luxury of taking that risk. Every few years we find out something that was previously deemed safe and approved by the FDA or USDA is actually making many people ill. What I mentioned above I'm not talking about the "dioxin email hoax" that went around, I never got that email. I did read on Johns Hopkins website and several Mayo Clinic websites when I ran a medical support group a few years ago, that they recommend against microwaving plastic, whatever the kind, because heating plastics releases BPA and phthalates which are endocrine disruptors-meaning they upset the balance of hormones in the body. It is widely known that BPA when put into the human body becomes like a synthetic estrogen and of course no one would want to be unknowingly putting estrogen into their body.
    • Laura L. 2 years ago
      A couple of quotes from this Harvard Medical School article about plastics and the microwave: "The FDA long ago recognized the potential for small amounts of plasticizers to migrate into food. So it closely regulates plastic containers and materials that come into contact with food. The FDA requires manufacturers to test these containers using tests that meet FDA standards and specifications. It then reviews test data before approving a container for microwave use.

      Some of these tests measure the migration of chemicals at temperatures that the container or wrap is likely to encounter during ordinary use. For microwave approval, the agency estimates the ratio of plastic surface area to food, how long the container is likely to be in the microwave, how often a person is likely to eat from the container, and how hot the food can be expected to get during microwaving. The scientists also measure the chemicals that leach into food and the extent to which they migrate in different kinds of foods. The maximum allowable amount is 100–1,000 times less per pound of body weight than the amount shown to harm laboratory animals over a lifetime of use. Only containers that pass this test can display a microwave-safe icon, the words “microwave safe,” or words to the effect that they’re approved for use in microwave ovens."
      Also: "Most takeout containers, water bottles, and plastic tubs or jars made to hold margarine, yogurt, whipped topping, and foods such as cream cheese, mayonnaise, and mustard are not microwave-safe.
      Microwavable takeout dinner trays are formulated for one-time use only and will say so on the package.
      Old, scratched, or cracked containers, or those that have been microwaved many times, may leach out more plasticizers.
      Don’t microwave plastic storage bags or plastic bags from the grocery store."
    • Laura L. 2 years ago
      Notice that the tests were done on lab animals only, and that the parameters were what the researchers thought would be "ordinary use"--that's not necessarily how people really are using it. A huge number of chemicals approved for use by the FDA in U.S. cosmetics and H&B products are banned in every other developed country for it's clear ties to health hazards, and often cancer. The meals in public schools were supposedly FDA approved and they were shown by many reports to be very unhealthy. You can't always trust a government agency, especially when the companies getting rich off plastics, chemicals, and pesticides have powerful lobbyists.
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