Can We 3D Print our Way to Sustainability?

Someday soon, home may be where the recycling happens. If Dr. Joshua Pearce has his way, that is. Pearce has spent his career investigating how technology can address the pressing global issues of sustainability and poverty. Last year, he and his team from Michigan Technological University’s Open Sustainability Technology research group put milk jugs through an office shredder, then into a 3D printer. They found that making their own 3D printing feedstock used about one-tenth the energy needed to acquire commercial filament, and used less energy than recycling the plastic conventionally.

3D printing in general has been hailed as an eco-solution that will revolutionize industry as we know it. The technique boasts a wide range of potential applications in manufacturing, medicine, and even building construction. Since world demand for 3D printers and printing materials is projected to reach 5 million dollars per year by 2017, it may make a significant mark on the economy in the coming years. Environmentalists are hopeful because 3D printing offers several advantages over traditional manufacturing. It’s decidedly much faster and less wasteful. Since items are created digitally, there are no limitations on geometry; printers can make intricate shapes, interspersing hollow regions to make lighter-weight products that require less fuel to transport. The technique has already made lighter and cheaper solar panels that are up to 20 percent more efficient than conventional ones.

The eco-virtues of 3D printing have been extolled across the blogosphere. But is all the hype true? And what are its potential environmental drawbacks?

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