Why Sustainable Manufacturing Processes and Polymer Material Recyclability are as Important to Your Cost-Per-Part as they are to the Planet

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Plastic recycling has been a long-fought battle and debate for decades, entering the forefront of consumer’s minds in 2015 through the viral video of a marine biologist and a suffering sea turtle. Even though many plastic products such as soda bottles and fruit containers are marked with the world-recognizable chasing arrows triangle, only 9% of the world’s plastic waste is recycled effectively.

Plastic production took a sharp increase beginning in the 1950’s, and has grown from an initial two million tonnes to over 450 million tonnes* per year. Although the most visible environmental impact of plastic is the waste that appears in our oceans and marine wildlife, the effect on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions is of grave concern as well.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that the lifecycle emissions of plastics – which includes the production of material and its disposal – is 1.8 billion tons. This is measured in carbon dioxide equivalents, which account for different warming impacts of multiple greenhouse gases. Since the world emits around 54.6 billion tonnes of CO2eq, plastics are responsible for around 3.3% of global emissions.*

The majority of the carbon emissions of plastics comes from the production and conversion of the materials. This begs the question; how can we reduce our environmental footprint from the beginning of a part’s lifecycle?

How Additive Manufacturing Can Help

One benefit of additive manufacturing (AM) that many users seek out initially, particularly in the aerospace and automotive industries, is its ability to lighten the weight of end use parts. 3D printed design offers the same performance and helps to optimize parts – making them lighter and more efficient for the user. This reduces the cost-per-part for manufacturers by reducing the amount of material used in each application while increasing the efficiency of the product that component is operating within.

If an application is made from 10 traditionally manufactured components, those are 10 individual parts that each produced material waste and energy consumption. Not only does part consolidation through industrial 3D printing reduce the amount of time it takes to manufacture an end use part, but it also reduces the material waste, energy consumption, and overall expense to produce.

In most traditional manufacturing methods, parts are mass-produced, usually exceeding requirements. Not only does this result in surplus parts that require storage, but it means the materials used to produce them have gone to waste. With on-demand 3D printing production, limited batches can be manufactured quickly and efficiently to fulfill requirements without the expenditure of materials or the requirement for surplus storage or disposal of unneeded items.

In any manufacturing process, there is waste in production. For traditional methods, there is often excess material discarded from every product, adding up to both a significant amount of wasted product and overall, a larger amount of plastic used to reach a production goal. AM stands to reduce wasted material significantly, and bring extended life to plastic materials used in the manufacturing process as well.

More on Materials

Furthermore, polymer AM offering the ability to reuse a large portion of the unfused powder from a print (i.e., the cast-off loose powder that isn’t melted to become the final product) in future part production. The amount of powder that is eligible for recycling into future builds varies based on the type of application and what powder is used, but as an example, a standard PA12 material can be used at a 50% refresh rate — that means 50% recycled powder and 50% new, “virgin” powder. While these figures are variable, the general amount of waste material that needs to be disposed of is far less in 3D printing than in other types of production, such as traditional manufacturing. Proper material handling and processing can also increase material recyclability, often trending towards 60%-70% recyclability if maintained properly.

Conscientious Resourcing

There are a growing number of materials being used to produce additive manufacturing powders with sustainability in mind. In exploring the characteristics of different powders, it’s possible to not only maintain high levels of product quality and functionality, but also to find solutions that are recyclable, longer lasting or entirely natural. The PA11 polyamide powder offered by EOS is an excellent example of how reconsidering the use of a naturally occurring and sustainable resource, like castor beans, can be used to change the way plastics are produced using naturally occurring materials.

Through pioneering industrial 3D printing technologies and materials, AM can provide digital solutions to existing and future manufacturing challenges with sustainability in mind, and leverage AM technology with climate change pioneers to accelerate sustainability innovations for the planet. This means always working toward results that increase energy efficiency, reduce waste and use resources conscientiously at every step of the process. Through innovation and imagination, responsible manufacturing can become the new normal.

Interested in learning more about the cost and sustainability benefits of polymer industrial 3D printing? Explore more here.

*https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution?insight=only-a-small-share-of-plastic-gets-recycled#key-insights

*https://ourworldindata.org/ghg-emissions-plastics

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