Will 3D Printing Transform The World — Or Just Fill It With Non-Biodegradable Personalized Junk?

from the what-a-load-of-rubbish dept

It’s clear that 3D printing has moved well beyond the breathless novelty stage, and is entering the breathless hype phase, with everyone declaring that it’s the next big thing, and that it will transform the world etc. etc. etc. There’s no denying it’s a powerful technology with great possibilities. But against a background of uncritical boosterism, it’s good to come across an article in the Architectural Review that points out some of the problems we will need to address to realize its full potential. Here’s one:

We could start by properly critiquing the impacts of this technology beginning with a much deeper analysis of the materials used, the energy and resource requirements, and the supply chains that result in printed objects. Fully characterising the current production systems may help us to understand how they could be developed into ecosystems of exchange where the coveted objects can be meaningfully recycled by our biosphere.

It’s all very well being able to print objects on demand, but unless the ecological implications — both in terms of the raw materials used and the energy required — are considered, it may well be that 3D printing is actually a step backwards when it comes to environmental impact. The ability to re-cycle 3D-printed objects needs to be built in from the start.

Another problem is more subtle:

If 3-D printing does not fully take on this responsibility then the sustainability of our current highly ‘customised’ objects is likely to be under scrutiny, as the unit cost of printers falls and hobbyists make legions of white elephants out of toxic plastics and when our landfills are chock-a-block with yesterday’s badly made fashionable shapes. And while some — such as ultrasound embryo portraits — may have enduring sentimental value, it is likely that most will simply clutter up our rubbish dumps and precipitate our plastic marine continents as indestructible rubbish icebergs.

As this points out, if we are not careful, the personal manufacturing revolution may become the 3D equivalent of Geocities: a huge flood of badly-designed, useless pieces of junk that are soon abandoned by their embarrassed creators.

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Comments on “Will 3D Printing Transform The World — Or Just Fill It With Non-Biodegradable Personalized Junk?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

The author’s premise is absurd. Of course sustainability is impacted by progress and innovation. Sustainability is negatively impacted by cars, electricity, computers, cell phones, insulation for homes and waste water disposal (including toilets). It’s the price we pay. And we pay gladly. Personally, I want it no other way.

Anonymous Coward says:

It depends on the user; however, 3D printing has already proven to be an extremely productive tool. I question this article’s motives.

Also, I’d gladly go back to the GeoCities days versus the Facebook days. At least those “badly designed” pages were more creative and individualized than this current social media generation.

Rekrul says:

Re: Re:

Also, I’d gladly go back to the GeoCities days versus the Facebook days. At least those “badly designed” pages were more creative and individualized than this current social media generation.

Yes, it’s just too bad that you could view more than a couple pages on any given site before it hit its ridiculously low bandwidth limit and became unavailable for hours.

Anonymous Coward says:

Open source to the rescue, presents the open source plastic recycling project.


But there is another point, is not just plastic, everyone needs to find a cycle for themeselves.

An example would be water today everyone open their faucet the water comes in and then goes out, nobody knows how that water got there, how it was processed and they don’t care where it goes, if you do that with plastic it will be a problem, but there is another way you close the cycle, instead of using thousands of litres or gallons a month one could be using just a few litres to replenish what was lost do to leaks and evaporation, think about a shower that uses only 5 litres of water to function, it throws clean water over your head, collecting it, filtering and pumping it back, sci-fi? no it already exists.


Now, thre are the other sources of water to be closed like the kitchen and toilet.

The same with plastics, there are some plastics that can be easily recycled all of them can be but some need to be dissolved into their monomers first so as to recreate the bonds that broke down over time, find that and find the uses and I am sure a closed system for plastics can too be created.

I was just reading about artificial muscles created from normal everyday fishing lines that can are roughly double the strength of natural muscles, that is a good target it can create clothes that would self adjust, opening vents that react to ambient temperature, etc, now imagine you could manufacture those at home?

Youtube: Power Fabric from Fishing Line Artificial Muscle

I see homes becoming more like our own bodies, we don’t throw out things we reuse everything to the molecular levels and only put out what we can’t process and is in excess.

Anonymous Coward says:

Does anyone else see the irony of an architect raising these concerns? Architects expend enormous resources and waste materials, energy and space to create and foster the building of structures that are not sustainable. I fly quite a bit, and without a doubt more money and materials are used to create ego-boosting and inefficient airport terminals in every location. Where a simple warehouse structure would suffice, massive spaces are created that are not sustainable at all. And these have become the poster children of architects: egotistical individuals building useless edifices to serve in the place of utility. Architects have no right to criticize 3D printing.

Benjamin C. Wade (profile) says:

Re: 02170

Forget airplane terminals. At least THEY’RE comfortable. Look at public transit terminals. Vaulting ceilings, with semi-enclosed walls and NO HEAT. These are designed for people? NO! They are designed to look pretty on paper. If they were designed for people, they would have lower ceilings, they would be fully-enclosed, and you would be able to sit down and watch the busses and trains coming in.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: 02170

Airports are transit terminals. Same issues as the surface facilities. Architects had to invent sustainability in response to the fact that they have been wasteful in their design practices. And now, we have to pay them to “correct” the issues!

One more thought. How much more efficient is rapid prototyping using a 3D printer, be it by powder or extrusion, than full scale mockups. Hell, just think of the energy, materials and lubricant needed to CNC a shape from a billet!

Innovation costs, folks. Lack of innovation costs more. For myself, I prefer food raised the new fashion way (I will have extra pesticides and fungicides with that salad, please), a bit more dolphin in my tuna, sweet crude imported from the middle east or other far away place for my modest car, hydro or nuclear power, chlorinated water and medications produced by big pharma.

notgmo says:



As one of the two most common plastics used in 3d printing, PLA is
1. Renewable (can be made from corn and milk by products),
2. Non toxic (and in some cases food safe),
3. Recyclable (can be ground up and used as input to new PLA production.
4. Biodegradable
5. Compostable

tldr; OP is full of shit

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: PLA

This. As an owner of a 3d printer, and a member of several 3d-printing groups; I can say that my (admittedly, anecdotal) data is this: PLA is by far the most widely used plastic. The other obvious choice (ABS) isn’t used much at all. Granted, this is because PLA is easier to handle, and not because it is biodegradable. People are sometimes meddling with other materials, but nearly everything is done with pla.

The people I talk to don’t tend to consider it food-safe, btw, due to the FDM process not making very flat surfaces (which makes it hard to clean, and pla doesn’t take to really hot water all that well).

Greevar (profile) says:

What is stopping people from shredding those items so the resulting pellets can be melted into more raw material for the printers? This seems to be very ecologically efficient. Use cheap, reusable raw materials, make them into new items, and break them down into raw material again after they no longer serve a use. It seems to me that 3D printing is a way to create an abundance of highly reusable resources. Why would you toss useful raw materials into a landfill when you can just use it to make something else, saving you money in the process? I will be glad to see billions of people using these tools to see what they can create. I welcome the infinitely renewable, ubiquitously abundant, post-scarcity economy and their beneficent overloads.

Rekrul says:

Re: Re:

What is stopping people from shredding those items so the resulting pellets can be melted into more raw material for the printers?

What is this “raw material” stuff you speak of? Everyone knows that you just plug a 3D printer into your computer and it magically spews out an infinite steam of objects created from thin air!

Jake says:

Re: Re:

I was thinking something similar. The most common 3D printer designs all use some kind of thermo-softening plastic; they have to, in fact, because they’re basically computer-controlled glue guns. That can be broken down for reuse with relative ease. The much hoped-for but not yet practical glass or metal-based ones would be even simpler to recycle.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: Recycle As Fuel (to Greevar, #12)

We use much more fuel than anything else except water, on the order of ten tons per capita per year (say, 60-70 lbs per day), in various forms, such as gasoline, natural gas, coal, etc. It’s just that fuel is not very visible. It gets pumped from one tank into another tank, or fed into a power plant to produce electricity, which is sent through the wires Virtually any trash which will burn can be turned into fuel, or electricity, probably the latter, and there just isn’t enough trash to substantially displace the requirement for fuel. The probable output of 3-D printers is just insignificant.Almost any improvement in energy efficiency matters much more.

When people noisily outcry against trash, it is usually nothing more than an affirmation of their personal purity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Easily repaired and safer without hiding places where the unwary can be ambushed and robbed. Plus bus/train terminals used to see much higher throughput at peak times compared to airports (fewer people affording air travel). I also thought that another reason they were left open in the past was so that exhaust fumes would disperse easily. Maybe that becomes less important as buses switch to NG, but the other reasons are still valid.

DerekCurrie (profile) says:

YES Biodegradable!

There are plastics available as well as being developed that make use of corn starch as their base. These plastics are ENTIRELY biodegradable. How quickly they degrade and are digested is variable.

Here are a couple useful Wikipedia articles to get folks started on the subject:



And please folks, understand that turning such plastics into mulch and compost does NOT mean they are returned to the environment as CO2. They are mainly decomposed into dirt, which is one of the basic requirements for most plant growth.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: 3D printer green sustainability

Poorly thought? Really? Environment is THE top priority nowadays. Forget global warming, this is but a hype. There are much deeper issues that need to be addressed and plastic polluting the oceans is one of them. The limitations of landfills is another.

In any case it doesn’t matter if people don’t take the environment into account. It will come back with the bill sooner or later. Either that or God is fooling around with the weather tab of His SimUniverse game…

Marcus (profile) says:

No Clue How 3D Printing Works

While I have no clue how 3D Printing works, the ecological implications are not lost on me. The last thing anyone wants is landfills on landfills as the inability to properly handle this potential windfall of consumer goods with either a biodegradable or other sustainable solution like recycling is scary. If there was a way to convert plastic into some sort of gas / oil to be used for fuel or energy that would definitely propel many components of 3D Printing to the mainstream.

Andrew (profile) says:

Encourage Invention

Far from trying to cut down because of the creation of waste products, people should be encouraged to play about with 3D. When I was young I had a mechanical engineering toy kit called Meccano, I’m not sure if it ever reached the US. I built everything, vehicles, cranes, gearboxes, lifts, it is thanks to that, that I have a good working knowledge of the mechanical world and succeeded in my own career. Kids need to be able to access these marvels and play around with it, as their future world will be full of robotics and tomorrows entrepreneurs and business leaders will come from the ranks that had such experiences when very young.

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