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3D or not 3D

Written by Equilibrium on 17 April 2018

No panacea for plastics recycling

3D printing is in ascendancy, disruption is in vogue and innovators are in constant search of new applications.

These are exciting times for additive manufacturing with endless opportunities, some of them environmentally driven, some of them deeply practical.

As with many new and emerging technologies however, claims by some advocates that it has all-conquering potential is illusory. This seems especially so with current claims that 3D printing is potentially a panacea for problematic waste plastic.

The technology is of course impressive and is already achieving noteworthy outcomes in some product classes. The capabilities and increasingly attractive cost and access trajectory are exponentially expanding its use, but its practical outputs are yet to match the enthusiastic media commentary.

We’re not expert in 3D printing or additive manufacturing but have been working with several experts for a few years now. We’ve been delving into 3D materials efficiency, life-cycle management and end-of-life material evaluation. Our investigations have also extended into the potential application of Product Stewardship for both the printers and the fabricating materials.

Plastic polymers are but one 3D fabricating material, but it is a common and frequently used medium. So when it comes to increasing use of 3D printing it is also leading to increasing consumption of fabricating polymers.

When it comes to using recovered waste plastic and recycling it for use in 3D printing, there are current and emerging options. The plastic by-product of some printing is itself highly recoverable and recyclable. Relatively low-cost solutions exist to take left over plastic 3D filament, 3D printing waste and other waste plastics and create a useable 3D filament.

Recent media also shows impressive results for taking problem plastic waste and converting it into a form that can be used in 3D printing.

The issue worth checking though is not that recovered and recycled plastic can be used in 3D printing, but more so what is the recovery method and extent of volume.

Before focusing on the end-of-pipe, just a pause to note that 3D printing has an inherently positive sustainability profile.

It is in essence a short-cut to manufacturing, on whatever scale. Its environmental, economic and social profile offers reduced need for multiple prototyping, reduced transport by enabling on-site fabrication, highly specialised parts manufacturing and potential multiplier effects such as facilitating longer and increased up time for heavy plant and equipment.

Having said that, it is generally still high-end equipment needing expert handling. Many of the ‘entry-level’ or consumer retail 3D units demonstrate poor performance and reliability, and are destined for near-term hard-waste collection.

Anecdotal reports from suppliers include the view that many new users find the set-up and calibration challenging, that there is a very high failure rate of printing and that many prints are sub-standard thereby useless. Rather than fast proto-typing, this can be fast waste creation in the name of DIY.

On the upside of this phenomena, 3D polymer printers use relatively little material. Especially when design and software is properly applied as they are highly efficient in optimising material for production.

And that’s the rub. At the end of the current day when it comes to the use of plastic polymer in 3D printing in Australia there is very little material consumed – whether it is virgin raw material or a recycled equivalent. On our estimates from discussions with importers and suppliers as well as our desk-top research, it is at present and at best in the high hundreds to low thousands of tonnes per year.

Now that’s still a lot of plastic in one respect. Improved end-of-life management of waste plastic and replacement of virgin with recycled is to be encouraged. In the current global market all avenues warrant attention, but as an end-market for plastic recycling it is a very small and highly constrained destination.

As present it is reported to us that recycled content 3D filament suffers that all too frequently experienced fate: that recycled alternatives do not provide sufficient price incentive to overcome ease of access to virgin product and concerns with quality. This is a challenge that confronts many secondary materials.

That 3D printing is growing means the sustainability lens should be on its entire life-cycle. That includes material use in making printers, application of the technology, product design, energy consumption, materials choice, materials efficiency and end-of-life materials management. Tools, materials and methods that contribute to achieving a circular economy should be supported and explored but not at the cost of robust environmental evaluation.

It is a great technology that can deliver better economic and environmental outcomes. However, on current evidence it is apparent that recycling plastics for use as 3D fabricating materials is a niche and not a panacea for waste plastics.

Ultimately, high performance, low impacts and measurable benefit will determine whether 3D printing contributes to sustainable production and consumption in a real-world context.

This article was authored by Nicholas Harford, Managing Director of Equilibrium.

17 April 2018

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