Megatrends in 3D Printing - Sustainable Materials

Published on 12 Jul, 2023

The 3D printing industry is embracing several strategies to make itself more sustainable. Manufacturers are providing plant-based materials, biodegradable materials, recycled materials, and innovative formulas. Adopting a circular economy model, choosing environmentally friendly materials, and reducing the environmental impact of materials are key strategies focusing on sustainability.

Currently, non-biodegradable materials, such as ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), are prevalent in 3D printing, but manufacturers are now offering a range of sustainable material solutions, including plant-based materials, biodegradable materials, recycled materials, and novel formulations. These solutions can be categorized into three approaches: 

  • Embracing a circular economy model
  • Opting for environmentally conscious materials
  • Mitigating the environmental impact of materials

Embracing a circular economy model

One approach to sustainability in 3D printing is the utilization of recycled materials. The filament extrusion 3D printing process relies on thermoplastics, which may not align with optimal environmental sustainability practices. However, 3D printing offers a promising avenue for the recycling of these materials. Materials from other industries can be converted into 3D printing filament, as well as materials from printing failures, support structures, or obsolete 3D printed parts. By shredding and extruding the material, a new spool can be produced with equivalent performance capabilities. Some sustainable options within FDM include R-PET, R-PLA, recycled tire filament, recycled TPU, and recycled high-impact polystyrene.

Opting for environmentally conscious materials

Another approach to sustainability involves the utilization of renewable resources and the development of biodegradable materials. Various bio-based materials can be used across different 3D printing processes, offering an eco-friendly option that can be broken down by bacteria present in industrial composting facilities. Some sustainable options include composites made from PLA and PHB, PA11, BioPETG, and biodegradable ABS.

Mitigating the environmental impact of materials

The adoption of filled filaments and bio-composites is another approach to mitigate the environmental impact of materials. By integrating waste materials into new products, 3D printing offers new avenues for sustainability. A PLA matrix filled with various waste materials can be utilized, producing a final material that is entirely bio-based and biodegradable. However, these materials generally possess suboptimal mechanical properties, limiting their application to accessories, decorative objects, design, artistic pieces, and sculptures. Filled filaments are available in filament form for FDM technologies, but larger nozzles than usual are necessary due to the size of the fibers or particles with which the plastic is filled. This results in lower resolution but faster printing cycles. Some examples of filled filaments include modified polyester and oyster shell powder, hemp PLA, algae PLA, wood PLA, mineral-filled PLA.

To conclude, overall sustainable materials are gaining momentum in the 3D printing industry as a viable business strategy that aligns with consumer concerns and demand for environmentally conscious practices. By embracing sustainable materials, industries and manufacturers can cater to a growing market of consumers who prioritize sustainability in their purchasing decisions. Furthermore, sustainable materials present an opportunity for additive manufacturing start-ups to differentiate themselves from traditional manufacturing practices and enhance environmental sustainability in the future.