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A Circular Economy for 3D Printed Plastics Starts with Material (

When the greatest share of a product’s environmental impact comes from producing its feedstock, selecting the right material is critical. For 3D printing and manufacturing in plastic, biopolymer could be the first step toward a more sustainable model.

The New Plastics Economy project of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has three tenets: One, plastics in use should stay in use. Two, plastic should be prevented from leaking into the environment, and existing litter should be recovered. And three, manufacturers should decouple from fossil fuel feedstock whenever possible.

The goal of this project is to establish a circular economy, or one which avoids waste and limits resource consumption by recirculating existing materials. In the case of plastics, a circular economy means recapturing and reusing existing plastics however possible, as well as limiting the creation of new, virgin materials made from nonrenewable fossil fuels.

“A single-use model where you extract fossil resources to make plastic, use it once, and landfill it — that’s the worst-case scenario,” says Dan Sawyer, business development leader at NatureWorks. The material manufacturer (jointly owned by Cargill and PTT Global Chemical) has been a collaborator with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for the past eight years, helping to advance its vision of a sustainable, circular economy for plastics.

Additive manufacturing (AM) has a role to play in that vision. 3D printing is one possible method for reusing plastic material and feeding it back into the economy in a new form. But the disruption AM brings provides an opening for more sustainable manufacturing far earlier in the product lifecycle. Each new part or product made possible by AM, and every existing part or product that moves to this workflow, presents an opportunity to evaluate material choice — and, potentially, choose to manufacture with a sustainable polymer. (Read more)

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