Design

This biodegradable filament makes 3D printing more environmentally conscious

But "biodegradable" doesn't mean you should throw your 3D-printed goods in the backyard.

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A company called Fillamentum has created a new material for 3D printers that can be used to print objects that are biodegradable. The filament, or a stringy plastic that’s used to make objects, is called NonOilen, and is made of a biologically based polylactic acid and polyhydroxyl butyrate blend.

Bioplastics — According to the company, NonOilen is food safe, meaning you can make cups, plates, and cutlery out of the plastic without fear of exposing yourself to toxic chemicals. But the most notable thing about the material is that it’s supposed to be compostable, meaning it can be broken down and reused in new objects, or converted into biomass like compost and water.

Often called “bioplastics,” materials like NonOilen can be more eco-friendly than traditional plastics — in theory. One study from 2017 found that switching from traditional plastic to a bioplastic like NonOilen could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent. Because they use organic material, bioplastics only use as much carbon dioxide as the natural plants consumed to grow. But the tricky thing is that reusing or composting bioplastic after production is tricky.

Bioplastics are durable — you can’t put them in your compost bin because they just won’t decompose quickly. Instead, they need to be sent to facilities where high temperatures and oxygen enable bacteria to break down the plastic into water and compost. But those facilities are uncommon in the U.S. And bioplastics can’t be sent to the same recycling facilities used for traditional plastics, as the entire lot could be rejected for mixing materials and get sent to a landfill. Bioplastics can emit harmful methane gas when not properly composted or recycled.

American recycling is broken — Most recyclable materials in general never get recycled at all and end up in landfills, even when it’s been properly sorted into the recycling stream. That’s because American waste processing companies have historically relied on China to recycle trash, but that country abruptly stopped taking U.S. recyclables in 2017. The industry stateside was not prepared to take over because proper recycling is an expensive process and with China out, there’s not a large market interested in buying recycled materials. Especially because “virgin” plastic is cheaper than recycled plastic.

Which is all to say that while biodegradable plastics like NonOilen are good in theory, they’re not 100 percent safe for the environment. It’s hard to actually reuse the material in a circular cycle.

Still, under the right circumstances, printing your home goods using biodegradable plastics is probably better than the alternatives. 3D printing has brought down the cost of prototyping new products, and now that prototyping could be a bit more environmentally friendly.