Updated: Jun 15
As 3D printing revolutionizes the way that inventors prototype their ideas—and streamline both the speed and efficiency with which inventors do so—the issue of plastic waste looms large over the technology that relies on plastic to function.
But what if 3D printers used a plastic that, when its use was over and inventors tossed it aside, it simply broke down in its environment in a safe way?
That’s the big idea out of rePLA, a team of innovators from the University of Portland that will present their invention, a biodegradable PLA plastic for 3D printers, at this year’s Invent Oregon Collegiate Challenge in June.
“I learned that there was a lot of waste being produced in 3D printing, not just the broken parts, but also the support material,” said Melissa Tran, a junior mechanical engineering major who is spearheading the project. “You can't really recycle it unless you ship it to a specific location. On top of that, it can only biodegrade in very specific conditions. So after realizing that, I knew that it was kind of an issue to be tackled. And so we came up with the idea of creating a bioplastic specifically for 3D printing.”
PLA, short for polylactic acid, is the kind of plastic most commonly used in 3D printing applications today. It can take up to 100,000 years to biodegrade in its environment, exacerbating an urgent problem with plastic waste.
According to the rePLA team, the very same PLA plastic is marketed to buyers as biodegradable, a detail that the team hopes to bring attention to with rePLA.
“We also hope to create a paradigm shift in the way that we see plastic and what's possible with that,” said Addie Zhou, an undergrad in marketing. “There have been a lot of issues with several companies in the past who have gone in the same path but have also run into the problem of just marketing something as very green when really it's not what you would expect.”
According to the team, there are no estimates for how much plastic waste is generated from a 3D printing lab on a regular basis, and a systemic estimate of what gets wasted is hard to come by.
An industry survey performed in the U.K. by a 3D printing company called Filamentive estimated that 6 to 19% of plastic used in 3D printing is wasted. At the University of California, Berkeley, estimates suggested that more than 100 campus 3D printers produced more than 600 pounds of plastic waste annually as of 2017. Comparatively, George Fox in 2020 estimated that it produced more than 70 pounds of plastic waste each year, and growing, from more than a dozen 3D printers.
With the growth of 3D printing as a prototyping paradigm—among the wide variety of applications for the technology—those numbers are sure to grow. A biodegradable plastic would go a long way to ensure that plastic waste generated by this technology has a soft touch on the environment that will surely be left to process and decompose the material.
“I don't think our society could even function without plastic because it has so many benefits. But at the same time, there are a lot of side effects to it that we probably didn't realize at first from scaling it up to the point that we have now,” said Zhou.
“Basically everyone on the entire planet is affected by this problem. So we think it's super relevant and are very passionate about this,” she added.