Too often we assume that technology is the enemy where the Earth is concerned, and with good reason. Humanity in the industrialized 20th century sprang forward in the name of progress, heedless or ignorant of the damage we caused. Beyond the deeply ingrained nostalgia that drives us as we age, telling us that our past was better, we have a verifiable set of data that confirms the Earth was a more virgin planet before the industrialized aims of man came into play. How could yet another technological breakthrough do anything more than contribute to the problem?
In short, the answer is that 3D printing intersects with sustainability concerns in multiple ways, and rarely negatively. To begin with, it changes the face of manufacturing as we know it. As Asheen Phansey writes for GreenBiz, a distributed network of additive manufacturing machines is diametrically opposed to the current system in at least two ways. Firstly, current manufacturing techniques revolve around milling a starting blank to remove material, or forcing substrate into a mold. By shifting to additive manufacturing, where an object is created layer by layer, waste is dramatically reduced. The machinery necessary to produce the desired effect, however, is also more streamlined and lightweight, negating the need for a centralized manufacturing center, from which the product is distributed. Instead, the method of production is distributed, not the product. This forms the second opposition to current systems.
Let that sink in for a minute. No need for heavy production machinery (in most applications). No warehousing or transportation needs, or associated costs. An emerging future model begins to take shape, in which a 3D design of a product can be downloaded via an app store, installed in the printer, and the object can be fashioned in your home, at any time. Which brings us to our next basic need for this system: printing substrate.
You could be forgiven for thinking this is where our sustainability narrative goes off the rails, but you would thankfully be wrong (and come on....this is one of those times you're gonna be happy to be wrong, trust me). The ideal printing substrate would be metal, due to its crystalline structure, which does not break down easily when it is re-formed. The technology to streamline the breakdown of metals before printing isn't refined enough however, as they need to be powderized before they are extruded. Instead, we find ourselves back in the domain of an old adversary: Plastics.
Now this is where the narrative goes off the track, right? Not so fast there, hoss.
We all know why we decry plastics in sustainability circles. Aside from the fact that they are clogging up our oceans, making our oh-so-pretty planet that much less habitable, and generally convincing every other form of life on the Earth that we humans are a pestilence, petro-plastics have all sorts of scary chemical implications. In that statement lies the key, however, because while petro-plastics can work in 3D printing, off-gassing all forms of nasty in the process (Hey, we've talked about that before...), they're not the only kind of plastic available, nor the best for this application.
Plastics used in 3D printing fall into two categories: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). Both are moldable thermoplastics, but while ABS is far from environmentally friendly, PLA is derived from sugar, meaning it is a polymer that can be generated from plants. Most commonly, it is derived from corn, and already used in plastic cups and dinnerware. Sustainably grown corn could theoretically provide necessary feedstock for a system designed around 3D printing. As intriguing as that sounds, however, there is still one more way in which 3D printing can revolutionize sustainability.
Our planet is covered in plastics. Who did that? We did. While they may not all be PLA-type plastics, the unbelievable amount of man-made garbage that currently resides in our oceans and landfills can have a new lease on life. Instead of existing as a pollutant or a danger to animal life, taking up to 500 years to biodegrade, these plastics can form the foundation on which a new system is built.
As TechRepublic points out in an excellent article focusing on the social impact of 3D printing, 15 million waste pickers worldwide currently eek out an existence by collecting, sorting, and processing plastics for recycling. This practice is particularly common in India, where two million people sell gathered plastics to dealers for as little as $0.15 per kilogram, making less than a dollar a day. The Ethical Filament Foundation has been created to develop a fair trade standard and certification process for plastics that make up 3D printer filament (or substrate). A further social impact is gained simply because these systems add inherent value to plastics. A waste picker seeking the right kinds of plastic can therefore earn 15 times as much for their work, socially and economically empowering them.
Finally, a company called Plastic Bank has opened its first shop in Lima, Peru, after a successful crowdfunding campaign last year. Aiming to change the fact that society does not value plastics, their goal is to use plastic materials as "a currency to reduce poverty." The company is organizing a "social plastic" campaign, asking other corporations to sign a petition urging for more ethical use of plastic waste.
3D printing is gaining more mainstream attention every day. When properly applied, it represents a potential boon to the sustainability community, ensuring that an old enemy, plastics, can have a new life as a key component of an environmentally ethical future.