3D printing (a.k.a. additive manufacturing) is becoming increasingly popular. However, it also causes pollution – for example due to high energy consumption and pollutants such as fine dust, volatile organic compounds (VOC) or nanoparticles indoors. This creates health risks for workers in industry, especially in large enterprises, and in small-scale applications with desktop printers (personal use, non-profit and small businesses).
The extraction of raw materials for and the production of printing materials will pollute the environment through, among other things, the use of natural space and diffuse nutrient and pollutant inputs. Pollution is also caused by the toxicity of the materials and the lack of recyclability in some cases.
One of the positive features of 3D printing is that the environment can also be partly relieved by more raw material-efficient processes. Especially in the production of very individual shapes – such as prostheses – considerable quantities of material can be saved. In addition, particularly complex lightweight structures can be realized in 3D printing: Due to the lower weight of vehicle or aircraft parts, less fuel is consumed and thus less greenhouse gases are emitted. 3D printing also enables or accelerates repairs that extend the life of tools or products by making spare parts easy to manufacture. In the private sector, 3D printing makes new recycling concepts possible, especially for plastics. For example, plastic waste can be used to produce new printing materials. 3D pressure-assisted toxicity tests can also reduce the burden on the environment in the future. And: In the distant future, food could even be produced with the process – for example vegan meat.
The study shows that environmental policy action is needed, because the risks of 3D printing for health and the environment must be minimized. At the same time, the potential offered by 3D printing for environmental protection and resource conservation should be better exploited.
The study can be downloaded here: https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/publikationen/focus-on-the-future-3d-printing