Is 3D printing biodegradable? (5 applications)

This article will deal with the biodegradability aspect of 3D printing. Other related factors that will also be shed light upon would include: 

  • What is 3D printing?
  • What materials are employed in the 3D printing process?
  • What are bioplastics?
  • What is the environmental impact of plastics?
  • What is biodegradation?
  • Is 3D printing biodegradable?
  • FAQs

Is 3D printing biodegradable?

The most commonly used materials for 3D printing are ABS and PLA. 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 will not be biodegradable.

It is concluded that the biodegradability of 3D printing depends on the type of material used for the process. 

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

What is 3D printing? (5 applications) 

3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing. 3D printing can be explained or defined as a process of making three-dimensional objects from a digital file. 

You must have heard about 3D printing be it on social media or in science books. It is also very logical to assume that many would also know what 3D printing is. 

However, one untapped aspect of 3D printing is its environmental aspect and questions such as whether the products of 3D printers are biodegradable or not. 

The article believes that these questions are of fervent significance. As the world struggles to create more waste while the global waste production figures burgeoning up to more than 2 billion tons a year, questions such as these appear to be the ultimate messiah. 

The quest to answer such questions will enable and empower us to make conscious choices not only as a consumer but also as producers. 

Ultimately, answers to these questions will help us in being aligned with the principles and practices of sustainability because it is the very idea of sustainability that makes us enabled in the present while also rendering us thoughtful and considerate about the future as well. 

Reclining back to the main topic, you may wonder how 3D printing happens. Well, there are applications that let your imagination run wild. These applications let you conjure anything you want from your creativity and imagination. 

Then there is hardware that is connected with the software. This hardware does the real magic and realises your thoughts and imagination. 

The real question here is, what materials are used to make 3D printed objects? The type of material that is used in the 3D printing process will let us better understand the environmental impact of 3D printing. 

For sure there will be other factors too like the packaging material or the machine energy consumption, but it is claimed as per Pareto’s efficiency, that one must run after the main target which yields more than 80% of the results. 

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 materials are employed in the 3D printing process?

This section of the article will deal with and explain the type of materials that are commonly used in the 3D printing process. 

This will let us better understand and prognosticate the environmental impact of 3D printing because the materials that are used in any particular product will tell us a lot about that product.

For example, consider the case of textile clothing. There are two types of materials used in textile products. One is natural and the other is synthetic. 

The impact of natural textiles is far less significant as compared to synthetic textiles which are largely because natural textiles make use of natural materials. These materials are mostly obtained from plant and animal sources. 

However, in the case of synthetic textiles, these textiles are made from derivatives of fossil fuels. That is why they have an increased impact on the environment while also being non-biodegradable. 

It is claimed that synthetic textiles may require more than 500-1000 years to degrade, which puts the waste management authorities to a big test. 

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 material for the 3D printing process is 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 are bioplastics?

We have just mentioned that bioplastics such as PLA are becoming a burgeoning material choice when it comes to 3D printing. Let us explore what bioplastics are and what advantages they offer. 

Bioplastics are made from plant-based materials such as corn starch, sugarcane, sugar beets, mushrooms et cetera.

These plastics are made from natural sources and are often renewable. Therefore, there are very minimal impacts of such plastics on health and the environment. 

  • Bioplastic takes up very less amount of energy to make
  • Bioplastic does not depend on fossil fuel derivatives
  • Bioplastic can easily be degraded by enzymes
  • Bioplastic can also be recycled with great efficiency 
  • Bioplastic does not add to waste generation and accumulation
  • Bioplastic is made from bio-renewable resources
  • Bioplastic may lead to 97% fewer carbon emissions

These are some reasons why it is so important to go for biodegradable and bio-renewable resources of plastics because the current waste generation caused by plastics is already over 90 million tons. 

Other than the issue of waste generation, conventional plastic leads to a fervent amount of carbon emissions which can be reduced by opting for natural sources instead of depending on fossil fuel derivatives. 

What is the environmental impact of plastics?

Since plastics are the most common materials used for 3D printing, let us rummage around the environmental and medical impacts of common plastics that are made from the derivatives of fossil fuels. 

These impacts may be summarised in the following key points: 

  • 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

However, the story does not end here. Other than environmental impacts, there are also medical impacts. These may be: 

  • Infertility 
  • Behavioural problems
  • Damage to children
  • Lung cancer 
  • Skin problems 
  • Nephrological complications 
  • Autism
  • Cancer
  • Neuro complications
  • Neuro toxicity 
  • Developmental issues
  • Hormone disruption

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. 

Other facilitators of biodegradability include:

  • Aeration 
  • Sunlight 
  • Temperature
  • Pressure 

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

  • Biodeterioration
  • Biofragmentation
  • 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. 

Is 3D printing biodegradable?

Let us now proceed to the major question and find out whether 3D printing is 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, 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 will not be biodegradable. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that the biodegradability of 3D printing depends on the type of material used for the process. 

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

When it comes to 3D printing, 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 will not be biodegradable.

Frequently Asked Questions: Is 3D printing biodegradable?

Can you recycle products from 3D printing?

Yes, it is possible to recycle 3D products because the materials used for 3D products can easily be recycled. 

Does 3D printing take less time than conventional manufacturing?

Yes, Additive Manufacturing (AM) that brackets 3D printing is less time-consumptive as compared to conventional manufacturing. 

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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