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How 3D printing can contribute to sustainability

3D printers offer huge opportunities for sustainability in areas ranging from biotech and humanitarian aid to bespoke manufacturing and plastic waste upcycling. On the other hand, they may also lead to more consumption and even environmental destruction. Below, Sustainability News weighs up the pros and cons of 3D printing.

3D printing may initially have been a gimmick with no practical benefits, but that has since all changed. These days, 3D printing technology is the driving force behind numerous innovations, including in the green and social sectors. If consumers eventually start making their own spare parts or even entire products themselves, this could revolutionize our system of manufacturing and consumption. But first things first: how exactly does three-dimensional printing work?

In 3D printing, meltable or otherwise liquid materials such as plastic, metal or even food ingredients are built up layer by layer in accordance with a 3D model produced using CAD (computer-aided design) software. The result is a tangible three-dimensional object. Depending on the printer and the materials used, this technology can be harnessed to create items with almost any shape for a wide range of applications. Examples include new T-shirts made from old ones, printed food, meat-free steak, spare parts, decorative figurines and toys, and even printed houses. 3D printing techniques are also great for ecological and social purposes.

Sustainable applications

  • Prostheses, skin and organs: 3D technology is already being employed in medicine to make personalized prostheses, bone implants and models for surgical use. Over the next two decades, researchers expect to be able to print human tissue and organs for implants and even human skin for transplants using specially developed ‘bio-ink’.
  • Humanitarian aid: 3D technology is being used today to quickly and specifically make up for supply shortfalls in war and disaster zones. For example, water filters as well as medical accessories like forceps and stethoscopes can be printed there and then as required. And items which have been destroyed can be rapidly replaced with printed components and spares.
  • Circular economy: Currently, 3D printers mainly process thermoplastics and plastic-like resins. One snag is that the resulting waste adds to the plastic waste mountains and pollutes the environment. However, numerous initiatives are now using recycled raw materials such as plastic bottles and packaging waste. Having been pressed into small pellets, they are then melted into ‘filaments’ – the thin plastic threads used in 3D printers.

3D Druck und Nachhaltigkeit ©

  • Sustainable raw materials: One drawback of recycled material for 3D printing is that it’s often of poorer quality than new material. What’s more, recycled plastic isn’t biodegradable. This is why high-quality biodegradable substitutes free of conventional plastic are being developed such as PLA (polylactic acid), a bioplastic partly made from sugar beet, corn starch or potato starch. Meanwhile, in an amazing flagship initiative, the Canadian startup Genecis is producing bioplastics out of food leftovers from commercial kitchens – and simultaneously combating food waste.

Even more opportunities for sustainability

In addition to benefiting medical and technological innovations, 3D printing could also make everyday life more sustainable.

  • Because 3D printed objects can be tailored to meet individual needs, it’s simple to make replacement parts and so easily repair broken items like smartphones and vacuum cleaners. This would extend the lifetime of existing products.
  • 3D printing could slash manufacturing waste because the precision of the printing process means 3D printers produce virtually no unwanted excess material.
  • And since CAD files can be posted online, retailers would no longer have to stock large quantities of products and spare parts. Accordingly, transport costs and the related CO2 emissions in the supply chain could be significantly reduced.

3D printing and the future of consumption: Two sides of the same coin

High-quality 3D printers are still rather expensive, but they will at some stage come down in price. And when they’re cheaper, more and more people will be able to afford to have one at home. At MediaMarkt and Saturn, we already offer our customers a choice of 3D printers: low-cost devices for private use and high-performance devices for industrial applications.

In the not-too-distant future, extremely powerful 3D printers will be available to the general public. People will then be able to print everyday necessities – both spare parts and even finished products – without having to go to the shops. And alongside the increasing number of publicly available 3D models, consumers will be able to come up with their own designs, too. This will revolutionize our previous consumption and production systems.

The downside is that by being able to print new items very easily and in unlimited quantities, some consumers may start producing large amounts of superfluous, nonsensical items. Moreover, short-lived trends could lead to more and more products with a short lifespan being made and promptly discarded again, amounting to a huge waste of resources.

3D printing harbours plenty of opportunities for sustainable development. But to make sure the resources saved in production aren’t wasted by additional consumption, like almost all new areas it’s important to use 3D printers responsibly.