3D Printers Are Now Sold at Staples…Why We’re Not Thrilled

Cube Home 3D Printer

Before I begin this argument, I know that I’ll probably rattle a few feathers here, so let me make a few statements to clear things up.

For one, I think that 3D printing in the future will be hugely beneficial to the environment. It can virtually eliminate production waste by giving us the ability to create products in real-time as there is demand, saving us from the problem of products that go un-purchased, sitting on shelves, in large quantities. It even gives us a (potentially) less expensive way to produce products domestically, therefore saving us from the dreadful environmental impact of shipping goods across seas. Additive manufacturing produces significantly less waste than traditional manufacturing, and the ability to reproduce small parts of home products means that you won’t have to buy a whole new product when a tiny piece breaks.

That being said, here is my problem with home 3D printers as of right now.

Staples has begun selling the cube 3D printer online and soon will be in stores. Like any printer, you’ll likely be more worried about the cost of refilling this bad boy, as opposed to the steep $1200.00 price tag. While perusing the cartridge refill page, you’ll find that you can purchase 2 kinds of plastics to refill your machine. One is PLA and the other is ABS.

Both PLA and ABS plastic are extremely bad for the environment, and they’re being produced in massive quantities to support the growth of 3D printing.

To explain why they’re so bad, we’ll break environmental-friendliness into 3 areas. We want to know if the product is:

  • Recyclable
  • Biodegradable
  • Compostable

Let’s start with PLA.  This plastic is derived from the starches of crops such as corn, beets, and sugarcane. However, the process by which the starch is extracted strips the plastic of really any properties that show it may have at some time been a plant. This is done so much so that if you’re allergic to corn, you won’t be allergic to corn-based PLA. So let’s ask a few questions.

Is PLA Plastic Recyclable?

The answer is no. Being derived and processed directly from the starches of plant products, the only way PLA can be reproduced is by using more of the same source. Though strides have been made in this area as of recent, there’s still not truly viable method of doing so.

Is PLA Plastic Biodegradable?

Once again, the answer is no. If at all PLA does degrade by natural means, the process is staggeringly slow. This means it doesn’t even fit the very loose definition of biodegradable as stated by the FTC. I will not entertain talks of “plastic eating microbes” because they are mostly the point of speculation and are only available in ideal environments, not typical ones like your neighborhood landfill. Even if by some magic, this plastic does biodegrade in a typical landfill, it will let off a good amount of methane. Methane is only a measly 6 times worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and only about 1/3 of landfills prevent this methane from escaping into our ozone layer.

Is PLA Plastic Compostable?

The one silver lining here is that PLA is compostable in an industrial setting. However, the ability for home composting is iffy at best. Another problem is that if you throw out PLA in the trash today, it will likely end up in a landfill, not in a compost.

So what’s the verdict? As of right now, the majority of PLA we product is here to stay for a very, very long time. It’s scary to think PLA is marketed as the “bio-friendly” choice.

So how about ABS plastic, is that a better choice? This plastic is formed from more traditional plastic sources such as petroleum and natural gas. The fact that these are non-renewable resources is already a poor start, but I’ll continue on. Here’s what we want to know.

Is ABS Plastic Recyclable?

Yes. The good news is that this is the kind of plastic you can throw in the recycling bins, assuming your one of the people who contributes to the very poor 8% recycling rate of plastics.

Is ABS Plastic Biodegradable?

No it is not. Once this sits in a landfill, it’s there for the long-haul. There are no “ifs”, “ands”, or “buts” about it.

Is ABS Plastic Compostable?

Once again, the answer is a resounding no. Once you make ABS plastic, there’s no turning back.

So what’s the final verdict on ABS? Unless we start recycling this stuff by the trillions of tons, we’re just robbing the earth of vital resources to produce waste that will never go away.

There is a silver lining in 3D printing. For one, I’m sure future 3D printers will make use of more environmentally friendly plastics, should they ever come to exist. Also, with the expected manufacturing benefits previously stated, we can possibly offset the production of wasteful toys and trinkets that will be filling most homes when home 3D printers become more affordable and popular.

It’s really a double-edged sword. Feel free to attack me below.