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Is 3D Printing Wasteful? The Facts Explained

As 3D printing overtakes traditional manufacturing methods, questions about waste have been raised. In 2020, manufacturers used approximately 18,500 tons (37 million pounds) of plastics in 3D printing, generating about 5,000 tons (10 million pounds) of waste. According to Filamentive, a recycled filament maker, 80.98% of home 3D printing waste is from failed prints. 

3D printing is wasteful because prints sometimes fail. However, since 3D models are created layer by layer, you can control wastage. Additionally, some filament is made from recycled plastic and is recyclable and reusable, so waste in 3D printing is minimal if you avoid throwing out failed prints. 

So, let’s discuss how much waste 3D printing makes. I’ll tell you about the plastics you can recycle when 3D printing and help you recycle and re-spool your own failed prints. So, let’s take a step towards a more sustainable future in 3D printing together. 

Does 3D Printing Produce Less Waste Than Manufacturing?

3D printing can be frustrating, especially when the finished object doesn’t come out as expected. 

Some prints warp, string, or topple over mid-print, resulting in an utter failure. When this happens, the model is ruined and becomes 3D plastic waste. Considering how often this happens, it is not surprising that waste from 3D printing is a concern. 

3D printing produces up to 90% less waste than traditional manufacturing methods. The waste from 3D printing is minimal because parts are made as needed, and when you design and monitor your print, it won’t fail. Most of the waste in 3D printing results from printing errors. 

So, when executed correctly, 3D printing can cut down on garbage. However, if you create many failed prints and aren’t careful with your design, you may end up causing more harm than good to the environment. 

The demand for filament has been growing over the years. 

Since many filaments are made from recycled plastic that you can reuse repeatedly, you can control the waste from 3D printing. Unfortunately, not all recycling centers handle filament recycling, which can be challenging, especially for domestic 3D printing. 

So, choosing these recycled or plant-based filaments and learning to re-spool them yourself is a great way to cut down on waste and save you money in the process. 

Which Plastic Wastes Are Recycled for 3D Printing?

One of the reasons 3D printing is a game-changer in manufacturing is its minimal waste. 3D waste is recyclable, and the filaments can be made from various plant-based and recycled plastics. 

Environmentalists hope that these 3D printing benefits will help reduce wasted plastic in the long term. 

Plastic wastes recycled for 3D printing include PETE (1), HDPE (2), PP (5), and PS (6). These plastics melt at different temperatures, and some cool faster than others, so you’ll need to ensure that your recycling center or filament recycler can support their melting points. 

The filament quality is influenced by the type and quality of recycled plastic waste. 

Even filaments made from the same plastic can also have different behaviors. For example, filaments have different tensile strengths, elongation, and density. 

Since each plastic is unique, not all material reclamation centers can process them into new materials. So, although these plastics are recyclable, you’ll have to find a center that can handle them. 

In addition, some plastics, like PVC, degrade during processing, so they are unsuitable for recycling for 3D printing. 

So, when it comes to minimizing waste, choosing your filament wisely is crucial. 

Are All Filaments Recyclable? 

Wastes from most 3D prints are recyclable. However, many curbside recyclers do not handle them. Since filaments are made from different types of plastics, primarily resin codes 1, 2, 5, and 6, they are classified as plastic number 7. 

All filaments are recyclable because they are thermoplastics. When heated to the right temperature, they melt, then harden as they cool. However, filaments like PLA are easy to recycle, while more complicated plastics like PETG and PP are harder to process. 

Unfortunately, some filaments are plastic 7 and are considered non-recyclable since they take special processing to reuse. 

Filaments are recyclable and non-recyclable, depending on the recycler. Some municipalities do not accept filaments in the curbside recycle bins because they are complex plastics with different melting points. They also have unique recycling requirements that may be too expensive for some recyclers. 

How To Recycle Your Failed 3D Prints

If you do a lot of domestic 3D printing, seeing the pile of failed prints can be overwhelming. If your local curbside recyclers don’t accept them, the junk buildup can be a problem. Fortunately, you can recycle failed 3D prints in various ways: 

  • Use a filament recycler to recycle the failed prints. A filament recycler will grind and melt your failed prints before extruding and coiling the filament onto a spool. Some filament recyclers only grind, while others only melt the waste, so you need two machines to recycle failed 3D prints. Unfortunately, the process is costly, the end product may lose color, and the filament diameter and texture may not be perfect. 
  • Find a local PLA recycling center. PLA is the most common filament, and some recyclers take scraps made from PLA filament. You may need to search for a material reclamation center that will accept PLA, but you will find a recycler if you look hard enough. 
  • Make ABS juice or glue. If you use ABS filaments and have some failed prints, you can break them into small pieces and put them in 50 ml (1.69 fl oz) acetone. Leave overnight. The ABS will dissolve into a consistency similar to milk. Apply the ABS juice on the printer bed before printing to allow the prints to stick on the bed. 

This YouTube video offers insights on how to recycle failed 3D prints into new filament:

How Recycled Filament Differs From Regular Filament

Although there are some recycled filaments on the market, most of them are made from virgin plastic. In addition, most “recycled” filaments only include a small percentage of recycled plastic. Very few recyclers make filament from 100% recycled material. 

Recycled filament differs from the regular filament in the following ways:

  • The diameter of recycled filament differs from the regular filament. During the recycling process, the composition of the plastic changes. Since the diameter of the extruder on the 3D printer is constant, the risks of clogging are higher when using recycled filament. 
  • Some recycled filaments, like PETG recycled filament, have a shiny and sparkly finish compared to regular filaments. 
  • Recycled filaments are also available in various colors.
  • The tolerance of recycled filaments differs. Some filaments have a tolerance of ± 0.05 mm to ± 0.07 mm, while others have a ± 0.01 mm tolerance. That means the standard diameters of 1.75 mm and 2.85 mm of regular filaments do not apply for recycled filament. You may need to use a larger nozzle at the hot end of your 3D printer and increase the distance of the extruder from the print bed. 

Still, some recycled filaments are easier to work with than others. 

You can support plastic waste management by buying recycled filament, such as the OVERTURE 1.75mm PETG Filament, available on Amazon. It has a tolerance of ± 0.05 mm, is compatible with various 3D printers, and doesn’t tangle easily. 

Conclusion

3D printing is wasteful, but the quantity differs depending on failed prints. If the models fail a lot, you may need to find ways to recycle them. 

Find out if local recyclers accept plastic number 7, specifically 3D print wastes. You can also attempt to recycle the filaments yourself.