Making 3D Printing More Eco-Friendly


We only have this one planet and we want to leave it in a better state for our children and grand children. One of my favorite hobbies, 3D printing, has not exactly been eco-friendly. But that is changing.

3D printing is becoming more environmentally friendly. There are now plant-based biodegradable filaments and environmentally safe resins. There is even a way to print using paper instead of plastic. The least environmentally friendly part of 3D printing is the electricity.

The key to becoming more environmentally friendly is the use of plant based filaments and plastic. Read on to find out more about how 3D printing is becoming more environmentally friendly.

Eco-Friendly and Biodegradable Filaments

The most popular filament used to be ABS. This filament is made from petroleum and is not particularly environmentally friendly.

The good news is that PLA has replaced ABS as the most popular filament. PLA is made from cornstarch and is biodegradable. It also prints at much lower temperatures and does not require a heated build plate so that it uses significantly less energy.

PLA tends not to degrade very quickly at ambient temperatures according to Fate of So‐Called Biodegradable Polymers in Seawater and Freshwater. This means that it will not fall apart over time. And unlike ABS, PLA can be recycled multiple times in a process known as cradle-to-cradle recycling.

According to Biodegradation of poly(lactic acid)/starch/coir biocomposites under controlled composting conditions, about half of PLA will decompose to water and carbon-dioxide in about 60 days under commercial composting conditions. So if you are concerned about proper disposal of PLA, composting is a great option.

Other Environmentally Friendly Filaments

There are several different PLA wood blends. They use the standard PLA and incorporate wood fibers. Most of these wood blends are 30% wood filler.

Wood based filaments smell like heated wood, similar to wood burning in a high school shop class.

Baby Grooot was 3D printed using wood based filament. One trick I have since learned is that if you change the temperature you can change the color of the print. Higher temperatures result in darker colored wood prints.

Hatchbox is one of the best regarded filaments available and they have multiple wood filaments for sale on Amazon. I have found their filaments are more reliable that most of the other brands of standard PLA.

Word of caution: Wood filled filaments are more abrasive than standard PLA. These will wear down a standard brass nozzle much faster than regular PLA. You may want to consider upgrading to at least a stainless steel nozzle. These ones are the one I use.

Even with the abrasiveness and filler, wood filaments print almost the same quality are regular PLA. The wood additive does give print a bit of a rougher finish, as you can feel the wood dust in the filament. But you sand and paint your prints just as with regular PLA or keep the print unfinished for a more woodsy feel.

Since PLA can be made from almost any starchy plant, there are wide variety of PLA sources less water intensive and more environmentally friendly than cornstarch based PLA.

FilaSoy is a soy based filament from S3D Innovations. It is planned to be released soon. This soy based PLA is is more resistant to deformation than regular PLA making it a great choice for Toys, replacement parts, and more. They claim that their filament will print just as reliably as any standard PLA.

Alga is a brand of PLA that is made from nuisance algae, previously produced by Alga but soon to be available from 3D PrintLife. It is produced from naturally growing algae that has been removed from the environment. And the filament itself meets ASTM D6400 standards for biodegradability.

Alga filament also has a lower print temperature, reducing the power consumption required for 3D printing. They do tend to be a bit stringy compared to regular PLA but that can be adjusted with retraction settings. The print quality is otherwise pretty good, with the finished product feeling less like plastic and more like wood.

One concern with these algae based filaments is the smell. Some people have complained that when printing the filament smells of burnt grass. This increases the necessity for printing in well ventilated areas.

However, Alga filament comes on a recyclable paper spool.

I have not tried Alga filaments, but will update once I have had a chance to see how well it prints.

How about a biodegradable ABS?

A company called Terrafilum is devoted to producing sustainable filaments. They are working on a biodegradable ABS called Ecologic ABS Filament. This ABS will biodegrade into capturable gas that can be used for energy generation, reducing dependence on other fuel sources.

3D PrintLife has also developed a biodegradable ABS. Their formula is designed to have the strength and resilience of normal ABS. Their filament meets ASTM D5338 standards for biodegradability. Their additive encourages bacteria in landfills and commercial compost facility to consume the waste for food.

Environmentally Safe Resins

Can resin ever be environmentally friendly? The good news is that Anycubic has developed a plant-based environmentally friendly resin for 3D printing.

I purchased this resin for its low odor quality. It doesn’t contain any of the volatile organic compounds that are produced in many 3D printing processes. There is no BPA or other harmful chemicals.

This resin is produced from soybean oil. Since it breaks down naturally into safe organic compounds, it can be disposed of in a landfill or used for composting.

I have printed quite a few D&D minis using this resin. The print quality is just as good as standard resin.

You will still want to be careful with this resin. It is recommended that wear gloves and mask when working with uncured resin. Just because it is non-toxic doesn’t mean that it isn’t an irritant.

While this resin is available through Amazon, as of the May 25, 2021 Anycubic is offering a by 2 get 1 free. I just grabbed some grey resin.

3D Printing With Paper

The paper 3D printing technology known as Selective Deposition Lamination (SDL) was invented by Dr. Conor and Fintan MacCormack in 2003.

The process of SDL is very similar to how other types of 3D printing work. The model is built up one layer at a time. In SDL, layers are made of sheets of paper.

The initial sheets form the base and each layer after is cut to make the shape of the model. Prior paper 3D printing technology used lasers to cut each layer while SDL uses blades. After being cut, each layer is glued to the previous.

Since each layer is made out of a sheet of paper, supports are automatically formed by the excess paper from the layers below. Support areas are more lightly glued than the model area to secure them and make them easier to remove.

Clean Green 3D produces an SDL 3D printer.

Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) printers also used paper to create objects. Sheets of paper are cut using a laser and glued together to form the object. They also create supports using the excess of prior sheets of paper. Unlike the SDL printers, the supports tended to stick together and were difficult to separate.

Electricity Used In 3D Printing

The least environmentally friendly part of 3D printing is the electricity use. In the United States, rather than building zero emission nuclear power plants, ironically due to pressures from environmentalists we have built coal, oil, and gas power plants.

We have been slowly moving to wind and solar power generation. These renewable power sources are unreliable and require batteries to store power during peak generation. Batteries require mining lithium which has resulted in polluting steams. These mines also require a lot of water which has placed a toll on nearby farms.

The best thing we can do as users of 3D printers is attempt to reduce our power consumption. Printing with lower temp filaments like PLA or utilizing resin printers that use no heat can improve our environmental impact.

We can also use enclosures that better maintain the printing temperature. I demonstrated this when I did an experiment on my 3D printer to determine how much power it uses. These require less power as the ambient temperature can be maintained, preventing the hotend and the build plate from cooling as fast, though I did find that other factors have a more significant impact on the power consumed.

Summary

3D printing has not been known as an environmentally process. According to data from the OECD, 3D printing compares very favorably as a production process to other production processes. Desktop PLA printing compares ever more favorably.

We can do more by using plant-based filaments and resins. The print just as good as standard variants so we don’t have to sacrifice quality to be more environmentally friendly.

Verl Humpherys

I have been 3D printing since 2017, using both FDM and SLA printers. My prints have varied from small D&D figurines to full sized baby Groot. I printed mounts for my various game consoles and my Oculus Rift. Any problem you can have with a 3D printer, I have had. And I am here to tell you what I have learned.

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