In the future, if you need a new smartphone case, you might not have to drive to the store and purchase one that comes wrapped in even more plastic. If you have a 3-D printer, you can purchase an entire spool of plastic filament for about $30 that could make 100 smartphone cases.
The printers usually use two different types of plastic: ABS or PLA. Each type of plastic has its advantages for printing, but there are disadvantages as well. Not only does melting plastic smell terrible, but there is also the potential toxicity of airborne, ultrafine printing particles. And then there’s the issue of what to do with failed products. What if the first smartphone case doesn’t quite fit the phone, or the second case has edges that are too sharp?
While 3-D printing has the potential to lower the energy costs of manufacturing, it also raises questions of sustainability if the plastics cannot be biodegradable or at least easily recycled. Eventually, we could all just become our own small-scale, inefficient factories. But some 3-D printing companies are already working to ensure that is not the case.
Type A Machines, a 3-D printer manufacturer, has sold about 300 of its products, which cost $1,695 a piece. The company only sells PLA filament, which is cornstarch-based, because “ABS is not exactly a sustainable plastic,” said Andrew Rutter, founder and CTO of Type A Machines.
“ABS is a concern because it contains known carcinogens,” he said. “And anyone who’s used a desktop printer is aware that ABS, if nothing else, smells quite unpleasant.”
Even so, PLA requires heavy chemicals to be processed into printable form and takes a long time to break apart naturally. “At the moment, there is no good way to dispose of it,” said Johann Recordon, a project manager at swissnex San Francisco. “We find it here in California under the plastic recycling symbol 7 and it should be compostable, but I’m not sure how well it is actually disposed of once it reaches the recycling facility.”
Recycling is the First Step
The smell of printing plastic, along with the potentially toxic particles emitted by 3-D printers, is something that Tyler McNaney, CEO and founder of the filament-extrusion machine company Filabot, hopes to resolve.
“We’re working on a solution for that,” McNaney said. “We’re building filters that people can 3-D print that will filter the air.”