Are 3D printer filaments biodegradable? (9 applications of 3D printing) 

This article will elaborate on whether 3D printer filaments are biodegradable or not. Other covered aspects include: 

  • What are 3D printer filaments?
  • What is 3D printing?
  • What are the environmental impacts of 3D printer filaments?
  • What is biodegradation?
  • Are 3D printer filaments biodegradable?
  • FAQs

Are 3D printer filaments biodegradable?

3D printer filaments may and may not be biodegradable. When it comes to 3D  printer filaments, there are two types of materials that may be used. One is biodegradable and the other is not biodegradable. 

Biodegradable 3D printer filament includes PLA. PLA is becoming an increasingly used plastic for 3D printing. This is mainly because it is bioplastic and extracted from plant-based sources. That is why there are fewer impacts of this type of plastic on the environment. 

Non-biodegradable 3D printer filament includes ABS. Another very common material that is used for 3D printing, especially home-based 3D printing is called ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene). It may be available in different colours and may be employed to make a whole range of products.

What is a 3D printing filament?

The understanding of what 3D printing filament is really important in determining the environmental impact and biodegradability status of 3D printer filament. 

A filament is a substance that may be used to make 3D printer objects. The most common 3D printer filaments are thermoplastic polymers. 

Thermoplastic polymers include two terminologies. One is thermoplastic and the other is a polymer. 

A thermoplastic substance is something that melts by the action of heat instead of burning. In this way, it can be folded into many shapes by the action of heating. Once it dries, it will become a sturdy structure again. 

A polymer is a substance that is made from repeating monomers that are chemically bonded. There are usually two types of polymers. These include natural polymers and synthetic polymers. 

Natural polymers are found in nature such as DNA, RNA or proteins. Synthetic polymers are synthesised in the labs by the use of products of fossil fuels. 

The 3D printer filaments are thermoplastic synthetic polymers. As per 3D printing, there are a number of materials used for the process. These may include plastics, resins, metals, and even powders. The main idea is to achieve the following traits in the 3D printing objects:

  • Flexibility
  • Texture
  • Strength
  • Shape 
  • Durability 

Owing to these requirements, the most commonly used filaments for the 3D printing process are plastics. The three most common types of plastics used for the 3D printing process are: 

  • PLA (Polylactic Acid) 
  • ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) 
  • PVA (Polyvinyl Alcohol Plastic) 

PLA is becoming an increasingly used plastic for 3D printing. This is mainly because it is bioplastic and extracted from plant-based sources. That is why there are fewer impacts of this type of plastic on the environment. 

PLA is available in both soft and hard forms that earn it the badge of being more versatile in use. However, it is expected that the use of PLA will further grow in the years to come and will replace conventional common-day fossil-derived plastics. 

Another very common material that is used for 3D printing, especially home-based 3D printing is called ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene). It may be available in different colours and may be employed to make a whole range of products. 

Its physical properties of strength and flexibility enable it to be used in the 3D printing of products like jewellery, toys, and stickers. 

What is 3D printing? (9 applications) 

Before the subject may be approached further, it is important to explore an introduction to what 3D printing is. 

In simple words, it is a type of Additive Manufacturing, in which 3D models (software-based) are made into reality by the use of a 3D printer and its filaments.

3D printing is regarded as a very contemporary form of production of materials because it enables the consumer to realise his imagination into reality. 

There are a number of benefits that 3D printing offers as compared to conventional manufacturing. The first is the reduction of time. 

3D printing is regarded as a really time-efficient process and it takes a lot less time as compared to other types of manufacturing. 

Also, the simplicity and ease of use of 3D printing are greater as compared to conventional manufacturing. However, it is claimed that 3D printing may require more energy as compared to other forms of manufacturing. 

The applications of 3D printing may expand to aspects such as: 

  • Research
  • Medicine
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Mass customisation
  • Food
  • Agile tooling 
  • Cosmetics
  • Prototyping
  • Cloud-based manufacturing 

To better understand 3D printing, let us review some of the materials that can be made from the wonders of 3D printing: 

  • Medical implants
  • Prosthetics
  • Fossil reconstructs
  • Consumer products
  • Industrial products 

What are the environmental impacts of 3D printer filaments?

As it has been seen, when it comes to 3D printer filaments there are two types of materials used most commonly. 

One is made from plant sources and hence regarded as bioplastic. The other is conventional plastic made from fossil fuels. 

There are a plethora of environmental and health-related impacts of the latter. These may be summarised into: 

  • Endangerment of species 
  • Infiltrations into the food chains 
  • Degradation of air quality
  • Smog 
  • Acid rains 
  • Acidification of water bodies
  • Damage to crops
  • Infertility of soil
  • Droughts
  • Deforestation
  • Pollution
  • Melting of glaciers
  • Rising sea levels
  • Increased global temperatures
  • Unforeseen weather patterns
  • Floods
  • Disruption of ecosystems
  • Destruction of habitats
  • Lung cancer 
  • Skin problems 
  • Nephrological complications 
  • Autism
  • Cancer
  • Developmental issues
  • Hormone disruption

However, material such as PLA is regarded as better off and may offer the following advantages: 

  • Biodegradability 
  • Source from bio-renewable sources
  • Less carbon footprint
  • Less waste accumulation
  • Decreased use of fossil fuels
  • Better recycling 

What is biodegradation? 

Biodegradability can be defined as a process of breakdown of waste into simpler materials so that waste may not accumulate. 

There are multiple drivers of biodegradability. The major driver of biodegradability is microbes. These may include viruses, fungi, algae, bacteria, and decomposers. 

The process of biodegradation may occur in some steps. The steps involved in the biodegradation process include: 

  • Biodeterioration
  • Bio fragmentation
  • Assimilation
  • Mineralisation 

The process of biodegradability is important because it results in the negation of waste accumulation and generation. If that does not happen, there will be negative effects on the environment and life. 

Biodegradable waste is the type of waste which can be degraded by the action of microbes and enzymes over a short period of time. Regarding this type, there is a general rule of thumb that biodegradable waste is mostly sourced from natural sources. 

Examples of biodegradable waste include plant waste, animal waste, sewage, manure, waste from slaughterhouses et cetera. 

Next, we have non-biodegradable waste. This type of waste is mostly sourced from non-natural sources such as the products of fossil fuels. This type of waste won’t degrade readily by the action of microbes. 

It is claimed that this type of waste may require even a thousand years to degrade. Therefore, it will lead to waste accumulation and negative impacts. Because of this, non-biodegradable waste is of more significant concern to environmentalists as compared to biodegradable waste. 

Examples of non-biodegradable waste include synthetic plastics, synthetic fibres, epoxies, hazardous waste, nuclear waste, electronic waste et cetera. 

Are 3D printer filaments biodegradable?

Let us now proceed to the major question and find out whether 3D printing filaments are biodegradable or not. 

It can be said that biodegradation depends on the materials used to make any particular product. If a product is made from natural sources, it will be biodegradable; otherwise not. 

When it comes to 3D printing filaments, we explored various materials used for the process while the most common being PLA and ABS plastics. 

PLA plastic is made from plant-based materials and therefore, 3D printing done from PLA will be biodegradable. 

However, if 3D printing is done by using conventional, fossil-based materials like ABS or PVA, then 3D printing filaments will not be biodegradable. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that when it comes to 3D  printer filaments, there are two types of materials that may be used. One is biodegradable and the other is not biodegradable. 

Biodegradable 3D printer filament includes PLA. PLA is becoming an increasingly used plastic for 3D printing. This is mainly because it is bioplastic and extracted from plant-based sources. That is why there are fewer impacts of this type of plastic on the environment. 

Non-biodegradable 3D printer filament includes ABS. Another very common material that is used for 3D printing, especially home-based 3D printing is called ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene). It may be available in different colours and may be employed to make a whole range of products.

Frequently Asked Questions: Are 3D printer filaments biodegradable?

What determines biodegradability?

The source from where any material is extracted determines whether that material is biodegradable or not. 

What is PLA made of?

PLA is a bioplastic made from plant-based sources that include sugar cane and cornstarch. 

References

  • Sivan, A. (2011). New perspectives in plastic biodegradation. Current opinion in biotechnology, 22(3), 422-426.
  • Zheng, Y., Yanful, E. K., & Bassi, A. S. (2005). A review of plastic waste biodegradation. Critical reviews in biotechnology, 25(4), 243-250.
  • Han, J., Guo, Y., Wang, H., Zhang, K., & Yang, D. (2021). Sustainable Bioplastic Made from Biomass DNA and Ionomers. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 143(46), 19486-19497.
  • Pastore, C. (2021). DNA plastic. Nature Nanotechnology, 16(12), 1302-1302.
  • Tokiwa, Y., Calabia, B. P., Ugwu, C. U., & Aiba, S. (2009). Biodegradability of plastics. International journal of molecular sciences, 10(9), 3722-3742.
  • Hopewell, J., Dvorak, R., & Kosior, E. (2009). Plastics recycling: challenges and opportunities. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1526), 2115-2126
  • Shahrubudin, N., Lee, T. C., & Ramlan, R. (2019). An overview on 3D printing technology: Technological, materials, and applications. Procedia Manufacturing, 35, 1286-1296.
  • Redwood, B., Schöffer, F., & Garret, B. (2017). The 3D printing handbook: technologies, design and applications. 3D Hubs.
  • Shuaib, M., Haleem, A., Kumar, S., & Javaid, M. (2021). Impact of 3D Printing on the environment: A literature-based study. Sustainable Operations and Computers, 2, 57-63.

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