November 19th, 2013

Print preview: what does 3D printing mean for waste?

5 minute read

by Sam Taylor


As a keen observer of the latest high tech trends and fads, the rapid deployment of additive manufacturing, or 3D printing as it is more commonly known, is one of the most exciting developments since the appearance of the smart phone. This is technology with some serious potential to change how and where goods are manufactured, transforming supply chains. The New Scientist has gone so far as to herald the technology as ushering in a second industrial revolution. But is anyone thinking about how what this new development means for the waste sector?

Whilst the technology is already being put to some dubious uses, the ability to manufacture pretty much anything wherever and whenever it’s needed is certainly appealing. Interest isn’t confined to those frustrated inventors whose imaginations have been constrained by the tools they can fit in the garden shed; there’s likely to be take-up from businesses, householders – and even space agencies, apparently.


3D movies?

Moving significant amounts of manufacturing away from factories (predominately in Asia) to our own door steps will no doubt have profound impacts on the balance of goods and services across the globe. The economic and social implications of the technology have the potential to be significant– as do the environmental implications.

There’s potential for greenhouse gas emissions savings from reduced shipping – not just cutting the number of products that make the long journey across the seas from China, but also reducing road freight around the UK. Fewer trucks on the motorways could be one of the unexpected effects 3D printing. But what are the waste management issues associated with mass deployment such technologies. And if we are future gazing, is their deployment consistent with the ‘zero waste economy’ envisaged by the Government?

For those who haven’t yet thought too hard about what the technology is; think of it like the ‘replicator’ devices as featured in Star Trek. The replicator was a machine capable of creating objects by voice command, from what appeared to be thin air. 3D printing is only a shade less magical.



With a big enough 3D printer, you could replicate your own Star Trek crew. Photo by Josh Berglund, via Wikemedia Commons.


Print media

By building up layer upon layer of material, a 3D printer can produce objects to any pattern, up to the maximum size it can handle. However, the applications to which these objects can be put to may be limited by the physical properties of the materials that will inputted in to 3D printers – the equivalent of the ink in the printers we’re all familiar with. Clearly, you can’t print a toaster if your 3D printer only uses plastic – but an oven knob, or even a wind-powered robot with dozens of moving parts, is no problem.



A quick scan of helpfully outlines the different methods 3D printers are able to deploy, which I’ve summarised here. Each appears to require its own TLA (Three Letter Acronym). Perhaps in the future terms such as:

  • Stereolithography (SLA)
  • Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM)
  • Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and
  • PolyJet photopolymer

will become as ubiquitous as DVD and VHS have been in the past. Each of these techniques is compatible with a selection of materials, primarily plastics – but some are able to use metals, ceramics or even play-dough.


Prevention is better…

3D printing is something of a double-edged sword when it comes to waste. It creates new recycling problems, but has considerable potential to help prevent waste. It could even be an outlet for recycled plastics. The opportunity for DIY repairs, especially to everyday items that we might otherwise decide were uneconomic to fix, appears enormous.

But with the higher profile that waste management has these days, I feel that we ought to be making 3D printing the first technology to be designed with recycling in mind. The waste management industry is a service industry; and typically it has had to adapt retrospectively to technology changes that it has not been able to influence. After more than a decade, we’re still catching up with the introduction of plastic milk bottles in lieu of glass. But this reactive approach clearly isn’t the best way to achieve a zero waste economy.

I’m excited by the challenges and opportunities 3D printing offers the waste management industry. As we, as a society, become more aware of material security, I’d suggest that the best approach would be for the waste management industry to engage positively with the designers and manufacturers of the 3D printing devices, trying to identify opportunities to ensure that the circular economy doesn’t become an afterthought.

The most appealing possibility would be if the machines could recycle waste polymers themselves, and re-use them as feedstock. Could we see a scenario where the machines become the recycling facility, thus greatly reducing the need for even the print medium to be transported?

The Government is keen to prevent excessive legislation from hindering economic growth, and prefers to adopt voluntary approaches. Perhaps the coalition could ‘boldly go where no Government has gone before’ and try to facilitate thinking in this area. Bringing the nascent 3D printing industry together with experts in waste management could help to make this new technology contribute to rather than challenge our ambitions for a zero waste economy.


Sam Taylor


Eunomia staff 2011


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georgemorganSam TaylorMaarten GoorhuisPeter Jones Recent comment authors

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Revolutionize additive manufacturing has less environmental impact and the materials are renewable, so users don’t have to worry about harming the environment. Nowadays, 3D printing hobbyists and enthusiasts are practicing different methods of safe-handling plastic waste. It’s a big challenge but 3D printing is becoming eco-friendly now.

Maarten Goorhuis
Maarten Goorhuis

Glad your wrote this article, Sam. I’m convinced that 3D-printing is the next revolution that will change the world to an extend we do not know yet. It will definitely have an effect on waste management, but which? It can indeed be positive or negative, and will probably be both if we don’t act. So we should act. Your solution that ‘the waste management sector’ should interface with ‘the designers and manufacturers’ is not that simple however. To start with, who are the representatives of either groups, and what are the stakes? The innovation in this development has only just… Read more »

Sam Taylor
Sam Taylor

Thanks for the comments Maarten. I agree with your points about the complexity of the waste management sector; it’s going to be a real challenge to engage with the decision makers and legislators to ensure that we don’t take steps backwards.

Engaging openly with designers of products will be a start; but I agree with your point – we have to ensure that there is something in it for them. Perhaps a rehash of producer responsibility legislation?

Do let me know if you have any discussions in this area – it’s something we’re really interested in.


Peter Jones

Great article, Sam – not something I’d thought about before you raised it, but now I’m really hoping that those developing 3D printing are taking account of. Of course, waste isn’t the only environmental issue associated with 3D printing. There’s an interesting piece doing an LCA on two different kinds of 3D printing (FDM and Polyjet), comparing them with a computer controlled milling tool – a lot depends on how each is used, but FDM performs well:

Sam Taylor
Sam Taylor

Thanks Peter – hadn’t spotted that study. Certainly looks like there is a lot of thinking going on; hopefully waste management can be one of the areas as well.