5 Innovative Ways To Use 3D Printing for Sustainability

Matthew Thurston
on December 6, 2021
Modern 3D printing. 3d printer mechanism working yelement design of the device during the processes..

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is a production technique typically using plastics combined with metal powders. From furniture to human body parts, all 3D printing projects start as a graphic design and turn into a solid product. Despite 3D printing’s environmental drawbacks such as their excessive energy consumption and the toxic byproducts they produce, companies are finding a balance with new technology and eco-friendly materials.

Sustainability Goals for 3D Printing

With additive manufacturing (AM) becoming more popular, businesses are re-examining their production methods to find out how to use more sustainable materials yet maintain cost savings and efficiency. In response to environmental regulations, companies now have sustainability goals to guide their efforts:

  • Maintain a circular economy, allowing materials and products to be reused as many times as possible.
  • End the cycle of plastic waste and trash items ending up in landfills, oceans, and incinerators.
  • Reduce carbon dioxide emissions by minimizing the transport of materials.

This commitment to environmentally friendly practices has led to successful, feasible solutions. Here are ways AM companies are contributing to sustainability efforts.

1. Reducing Plastic Waste

Unfortunately, the majority of plastic products end up in our oceans across the globe. One way to combat this pollution is to reduce plastic waste. Thanks to the layer-by-layer application method for 3D printing, only a minimal amount of material is used, and no trimming is needed. Unlike the subtractive machining methods, 3D printing leaves hollow spaces in the middle or designs where materials don’t need to be removed or wasted. Therefore, less plastic is expended, and less scrap is discarded.

Beach pollution. Plastic bottles and other trash on sea beach

2. Using Biodegradable Materials

Bio-based raw materials are now used in 3D printing processes. One common substance is a biodegradable plant polymer called PLA, which is often made from corn but can also include wood, soy, seaweed, or algae. Recent advances in water-based polymers from MIT’s Mediated Matter Group are incorporating such other natural ingredients as cellulose and calcium carbonate.

Another company creating products with biodegradable materials is India-based Spectalite. Combining agricultural waste and renewable resources for manufacturing, Spectalite’s bio compound materials serve a variety of industries, from packaging to automotive, material handling, housewares, and furniture.

3. Recycling Plastic

Another option promoting sustainability in AM is recycling plastic items that were thrown away or reusing plastic scrap from factories. One way to do this is to make new polymer filaments, which are even stronger than the original polymer fibers. Currently, there are machines that repurpose cleaned and shredded thermoplastics. Then the small pieces pass through an extruder, creating new recycled filaments.

For example, if you travel to Thessaloniki, Greece, you can find 3D-printed outdoor furniture arranged throughout the community. In partnership with the city’s Zero Waste Lab, The New Raw research and design group started a plastics recycling project. They encouraged citizens to deposit their plastic items for recycling, and then the lab produced the 3D-printed furniture from the plastics collected. In addition to the Thessaloniki furniture, The New Raw has also used recycled plastic to make seashells and tableware.


4. Reducing Emissions

Often, products need to be shipped to other facilities for packaging or other final applications. If manufacturers can complete a production process in one facility, it reduces the need for the transport of materials – fewer trips by truck or plane lower exhaust emissions and the carbon footprint. Also, remote access makes it more convenient to transmit 3D designs via email, eliminating the need for road travel.

Construction researchers have deemed cement as environmentally damaging, citing its harmful carbon dioxide emissions. As a cement alternative, a Portuguese company called eCO2Blocks are producing carbon-negative pavement blocks. Instead of using natural resources, eCO2Blocks uses a combination of non-potable water, carbon dioxide absorption technology, and industrial waste.

5. Preserving the Ecosystem

As a result of global warming, natural coral reefs are deteriorating across the globe. With the help of 3D printing, researchers in France and Australia are able to create plastic reefs. The artificial reefs are installed next to the natural reef, encouraging coral regrowth and recovery of the reef’s natural inhabitants.

Recycling for AM has also helped to eliminate ocean-bound plastic litter. For example, the New Raw collects abandoned fishing nets that trap and kill aquatic species. The nets are then recycled to create new 3D-printed plastic products.


Experts predict that 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing technology, will evolve and eventually join or replace traditional material processing tools. In the meantime, researchers are finding more solutions to make 3D printing an economical and sustainable procedure. Because material production methods are shifting with the three Rs in mind — reduce, reuse, recycle — businesses can comply with environmental regulations as well as provide quality, eco-friendly products.

Matthew Thurston
Matthew Thurston, Information Security Analyst – University of Utah

“I am thrilled to be able to share with the Matmatch community the importance of sustainability and the technological advancements being made to prolong our environment.”


*This article is the work of the guest author shown above. The guest author is solely responsible for the accuracy and the legality of their content. The content of the article and the views expressed therein are solely those of this author and do not reflect the views of Matmatch or of any present or past employers, academic institutions, professional societies, or organizations the author is currently or was previously affiliated with.

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