3D Printing: Interesting Environmental Fact

By on June 28th, 2013

I’m finishing up a feature article on 3D printing for one of the trade magazines, and during one of my conversations with a 3D printer tech, I discovered something interesting.

Source: Stratasys 3D

Source: Stratasys 3D

As someone used to dealing with paper, I’m not keyed in to thinking about plastic. Most commercial 3D presses use plastic or metal filament, and I wasn’t thinking much about the difference between PLA filament and ABS filament. Only that PLA filament was available in fewer colors (10 colors for Makerbot, for example, compared to 25 for ABS).

PLA is made of biodegradable material. You can plant it in your garden. ABS is made of petrochemicals. It won’t degrade for thousands of years in a landfill. When you are talking about creating an entirely new market (and demand) for plastic products, the difference is significant. Retail pricing on the two types of filament — at least from Makerbot, which posts its prices right on its website — is similar if not identical.

If you have a choice between biodegradable and non-biodegradable raw materials, which would you choose? Granted, most people throw biodegradable plastics into the trash anyway, and once in the landfill, they act pretty much like regular plastic. But if you’re using 3D-printed products as promotions or incentives, why not hang a tag on them that says, “I’m biodegradable! Compost me!”?

For some, 3D-printed promotions and incentives will simply replace, in terms of volume, traditionally created products. Even if you can reduce the volume going into the landfill incrementally by using 3D-printed PLA versions, that’s a good thing. If you’re going to be adding plastic into the waste stream by using 3D printing to get into new markets, then it just seems to be the right thing to do.

Now for the interesting fact. In the United States, the PLA filament is made of a corn starch derivative. After all, we grow a lot of corn here. In Europe, however, the starch derivative is potato. In Asia, it’s rice. It makes me glad to live in a corn-bountiful country because, according to the service tech I spoke to, “when you are printing with it, it smells like waffles.” I like waffles.


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3 Responses to “3D Printing: Interesting Environmental Fact”

  1. Joel Salus Says:

    Well, Heidi, please let all of your visitors know when you’ve finished the feature article you’re working on …. and where we can go to read it!

  2. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Says:

    Sure, Joel — Print Solutions magazine for July. If you get a chance to read it, please come back here and post comments.

  3. Kostagh Says:

    I’d go with the non bio-degradable ABS. And I’ll encourage everyone to do the same. Why? I’m not an anti-environmentalist, HOWEVER! when reading that it’s made of corn starch, potatoes and rice respectively, I can’t but wonder how many hungry people could have been fed with the respective corn, potato or rice. And knowing how many hungry people are in the world… I think I’ll stick to ABS.