Plastic Overdrive

Flickr / A.Buser

Flickr / A.Buser

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I had a conversation (if you can call a Twitter exchange such a thing) a couple of weeks back with the inimitable Justin Pickard about 3D printing, and whether, as a technology, it can bring about a wondrous industrial/craft renaissance. 

As a thought experiment—playing devil's advocate if you will—I put it to him that another alternative could be considered: that, alongside bringing us some pretty astouding local creation capabilities, it could also turn out to be a technology with some serious downsides—a portal to another consumption and waste cycle, only distributed instead of industrialized. Last week, a tweet from Cameron Tonkinwise brought this idea back to me:

I suspect Cameron and I were onto a similar idea: that making the quick leap from industrial-scale manufacturing to the desktop/home/cottage/workshop environment, particularly on a consumer scale, also brings all of the nasty side-effects of cranking out plastic, metal or whatever media into the home with it. Foundries, mills and factories used to be pretty junky, toxic places, littered with scrap material and waste product. In the developed world, the 20th century brought us increasing levels of health, safety and labor regulation that cleaned much of it up, though such conditions still exist in much of the manufacturing world outside this zone. While fragments of ABS are probably less harmful than, say, lead filings or containers of acetone sloshing about open, a world with a lot small-scale 3D fabrication outside controlled production environments is also a world with a lot of plastic scrap piling up in waste bins and corners (yes, there are now biodegradable plastics and processes than can reuse scrap, but these may only curtail, not eliminate, waste). Biowaste crapjects could be an even more interesting case ("Who's kidney is this?" "Oh, that one wasn't a keeper.") In my mind's eye, I picture the trashpickers of LA, wandering over a field of discarded chess pieces and napkin holders, tossing aside mishapen busts of Mozart and two-headed Star Wars stormtroopers, pushing past a half-finished TV stand or crunching through the remains of several attempted drone-prints. 

The second thing that comes to mind is the convenience factor, and possible parallels with the car. Cars were a great new innovation when introduced, and, as Hurricane Sandy is showing us right now, losing access to them in the modern environment (or to other motorized transport) cuts down on our ability to consume. Without the car, we wouldn't have the modern shopping mall—a suburban storehouse of goods waiting for us to buy fuel in order to travel to, purchase and transport, unwrap, consume and dispose of the waste of goods from. Cars have brought us many positive elements of modern life, but also delivered us to some of the most negative—energy-driven conflicts, massive resource extraction, climate change and so on. Cars enable us to consume more, and more casually, than we otherwise might.

Don't get me wrong. I find 3D printing as fascinating as the next geek. I even made a special trip last week while in pre-hurricane New York City to stop into the MakerBot store, ogle the new units and grab a couple of printed tchotkes for the kids (small Tardis, some bracelets). It's a technology area with enormous promise. But my mind can't help but wander to an alternate scenario where, in 50 years, our resource-conscious offspring don't walk by and sneer at our superconvenient supercheap, ubiquitous home fabricators and wonder why we bought them (look at behaviors emerging around Gen Y and car purchases). We can't count on the positive potential of an innovation to completely eliminate all possibility of negative externalities.

This is particularly the case with a technology like this where the cost of trial-and-error is potentially lower because the cost of access to the blueprints for many products is potentially near zero (think about the near-zero marginal cost of sending e-mails, and see what's happened there) . Also, at scale, could we really expect 3D printing to cut down significantly on materials consumption and waste from industrial supply chains, or might it just shift the flows from one big factory to many small ones? I'd love to see the math—it's beyond my capacity at the moment. If this is what happens when things are costly to make and involve massive global supply chains, what happens when production is *automagic*?

Then again, peak plastic might just solve the problem for us...


Deb Chachra, author of the peak plastic piece above, associate professor of materials science at Olin College and friend, offered this additional comment:

"Part of the reason why we see 3D printers as producers of cheap disposables is because right now we only have the technology to make, well, tchotchkes. For example, you look at the bottom of the Shapeways 'Materials' page (ed: Ts&Cs here), it explicitly says that everything is for decorative use only. I know that there are a lot of smart people working really hard to improve the mechanical and other properties of 3D-printed objects, but we have some way to go before we get there.
Another important aspect of 3D-printing is that, while you can distribute the manufacturing, the feedstock  itself the product of a global supply chain--a series of manufacturers and distributors that turn crude oil into precisely-formulated ABS, extruded into spools with constant diameters, available on demand. To really fulfill the promise of distributed manufacturing, we’d need to develop local and resilient sources of the input material. Again, there is a long way to go with the technology, but there are some obvious places to start: local materials (like sintered sand), locally-manufactured bioplastics from renewable sources, recycled post-consumer plastic. Not surprisingly, these are also environmentally sustainable practices.
Thinking about photocopying as an analog to 3D printing leads to some other ways to think about the problem of waste. One possibility is that most people do their 3D-printing at a local center, the equivalent of a Kinko’s, with skilled technicians, industrial machines, and processes for dealing with waste. The next step is that 3D printers and systems get much more reliable—think about how little paper is wasted with modern laser printer/photocopiers, not just because they are more robust machines, but also because the systems we use to design and print are well-established (like WYSIWYG or 'Print Preview' in virtually every piece of productivity software). The third option, which we haven’t yet managed for paper, is a cradle-to-cradle system, where waste output is fed back into the printer as feedstock—your crapjects get dropped into a hopper, where they are chewed up, melted, and extruded to print your next experiment."