Schools, homes and small business are using 3D printers in record numbers. 3D printers require filament in order to print out 3D objects (think ink cartridges in paper printers). The filament most commonly sold with desktop 3D printers is ABS plastic. Research just out in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology confirms that 3D printing with ABS emits high concentrations of harmful chemicals, including styrene (classified as a possible human carcinogen and proven to elevate cancer risks in adults and pulmonary infections in infants.)
How many more studies do we need before ABS and other potentially harmful filaments can be prohibited from use in schools, homes and small businesses?
A few 3D printer manufacturers, as well as some third party start-ups (3DPrintClean), sell enclosures to clean and ventilate the air while 3D printing. Not nearly enough 3D printer manufacturers stress the overall importance of 3D printing in a well ventilated space. And no 3D printing lab or maker space that I have visited requires kids or makers to wear protective breathing masks.
But isn't the bigger question why harmful filaments like ABS are still being sold to consumers? Shouldn't 3D printer manufacturers only sell filaments that are made from eco-friendly materials which do not emit toxic chemicals? Especially if the end-users are kids, educators, parents and small business owners. Ventilated air is a great idea, but isn't that just putting a bandaid over a problem which could be solved by eliminating the use of harmful 3D printing filaments, like ABS, in schools, homes and small businesses?
2015 was a great year for emerging eco-friendly 3D printing filaments. Algae-Fuel made from wild harvested GMO-free algae, Wound Up filament from recycled coffee-grounds, Biome 3D from potato-starch, Timberfill from recycled Spruce trees, and Buzzed filament from the byproducts of the beer making process all debuted on the 3D printing landscape. With new filaments emerging every week, 2016 looks just as exciting.
But many of these innovative eco-friendly filaments have yet to reach schools, homes and small businesses. Most 3D printer manufacturers require use of their proprietary filaments, or the warranty on the 3D printer will be void. The filament section of the Makerbot website shows only four types of filament available for purchase, just one of which is eco-friendly (PLA corn-based). Understandably, a school that has just invested in a new set of Makerbots will only buy their filament from Makerbot, as they do not want to risk their warranty. And with no knowledge about emissions or toxic chemicals, that school will purchase the least expensive filament, which of course is ABS.
As a PMP certified Project Manager and mom of two young 3D printing enthusiasts, I launched a Kickstarter campaign in June 2015 proposing to test and certify 3D printing filaments: Testing and Certification for 3D Printing Filament by Clean Strands. This campaign received widespread support across the entire 3D printing industry, but it did not reach the funding goal. In December 2015, I launched Clean Strands, the first marketplace for eco-friendly 3D printing filaments. Again, support for Clean Strands was phenomenal, but sales have been limited for the reasons I outlined above.
It is my goal for 3D printer manufacturers and eco-friendly filament manufacturers to work together. If 3D printer manufacturers are going to require proprietary filaments, then they need to actively engage eco-friendly filament manufacturers to become their suppliers. If schools, homes and small businesses must shop for filament on the website of the manufacturer where they purchased their 3D printer, then that website should not offer ABS or any other toxic material, but instead only offer the most up to date selection of eco-friendly filaments.
Let's not applaud another research paper chronicling the toxic chemicals found in 3D printing filament. Let's get it right this time.