Making 3D Printing Durable and Sustainable

Buzz Baldwin, right, with his business partner, Joel Rush, left.

For Earth month, we’re profiling people who have used great design to solve the problem of waste in our environment. We’re revealing how they minimize environmental impact through new thinking, products, and designs.

When Buzz Baldwin, co-founder of 3D Printlife, started his company in 2011, there were certain accepted facts about the 3D-printing industry. First, everyone knew that the strongest, most durable printing filament was not environmentally friendly. The eco-friendlier options simply didn’t have the durability for commercial use. People using 3D printers had to decide between protecting the environment or making a durable product.

Buzz also understood this trade off. He says, “At the time we just looked at it how we look at a lot of things in life. I must put gas in my car. I must use electricity. We don’t necessarily like it, but we’re sort of stuck with it.”

Fast forward to a chance meeting in 2014 with a biochemist in the Boston area who specializes in bioplastics, and Buzz’s whole paradigm shifted. He refers to the meeting as a “happy accident” that led to 3D Printlife’s unique, environmentally friendly, 3D printing filament made of durable ABS plastic. It certainly took trial and error and hard work to get there, but a little luck never hurt anything — especially when it comes to saving the Earth.

The Unknown, Eco-Friendly World of Bioplastics

Bio-additives — used in petroleum based thermoplastic products like shampoo bottles — are specially formulated to be consumed by bacteria once they enter a landfill to energy facility or a commercial compost. Buzz says, “We talked about plastics used in 3D printing and he really lit up over the idea that he might be able to tweak one of his formulas to get it to bond with ABS, causing it to degrade in the same way as other plastics. I immediately jumped at the idea.” And that was the start of making an eco-friendly ABS that maintained the same characteristics of a high-performance plastic.

To understand how strong and durable ABS plastic is, think about the last time you accidentally walked barefoot across your child’s Lego set. ABS is the plastic used in Legos. It’s strong, durable, and UV resistant, and that makes it good for printing mechanical parts. Buzz points out that many 3D printer manufacturers use a 3D printer to create 3D printer parts.

Because ABS is the preferred high-durability 3D printer filament for engineering customers, 3D Printlife’s eco-friendly ABS had to be just as strong and long lasting. Buzz’s conversation with the biochemist kicked off 18 months of hard work. They began the process of testing and refinement to find the right combination and balance of the biochemist’s additives with the ABS plastic. Ultimately, Buzz and his team were successful. They created a filament that was every bit as strong as normal ABS, but which would also degrade under the right conditions.

Green to the Core

Buzz has always had a mindset of sustainability and environmental responsibility. He attributes it to growing up in New Hampshire where his parents’ property bordered a state park. “I basically grew up in the woods,” says Buzz. “And, as a family, we always recycled. I try really hard to make sure that everything makes it into the proper bin — it’s emotionally uncomfortable for me when that doesn’t work out.”

This background was the driving influence behind another of 3D Printlife’s innovations. When Buzz got into the filament business, the accepted standard was to package materials on spools that were also made of ABS plastic. This was done because the spools had to be strong enough to withstand the tightly wound filament. However, it also meant more waste.

With his company’s new eco-friendly filament — Enviro ABS — going to market, Buzz couldn’t stand the idea that they were going to ship the filaments wound around non-biodegradable waste. He says, “There was no point in delivering an eco-friendly material on a plastic spool that is just going to continue to propagate the problem we are trying to solve.” So Buzz got back to work.

Eventually, 3D Printlife found a company to make spools out of heavy recycled cardboard that is biodegradable, and bound with a recyclable tin end cap.

Sustainability as a Market Differentiator

Because Buzz believes so strongly in caring for the planet, he goes the extra mile with his sustainability efforts. As a final perk to help minimize any environmental impact from its products, 3D Printlife donates a dollar from the sale of every Enviro ABS spool to plant a tree.

Buzz sees an environmental impact with Enviro ABS and also a market impact. “This product tells a story and triggers an emotional response when it has no business doing so — we sell plastic,” Buzz says with some disbelief. For 3D-printing enthusiasts, plastic is simply the material they use and all they really care about is whether it’s the right price point. But now 3D Printlife has given them a quality, environmentally responsible option at the same price point.

“It has given us tremendous market separation — particularly in the university and education space where more people are aligned to being eco-friendly,” says Buzz. “It has been a real door opener for us.”

Own Your Impact

Had Buzz realized what might have been possible from the beginning, he would have taken the sustainable route sooner. He believes his company’s path is a great reminder of why you should question everything. First, question the assumptions in your industry, especially if there is a standard that is harmful to the environment. Second, question your packaging. And third, consider how you can add environmental value.

Like Buzz, keep an open mind and watch for innovation that can help reduce waste and improve your offering of sustainable products. You must want to make a difference and then be willing to take action. That way, when opportunity knocks, you’ll be ready to do more to own your impact.

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