A report suggests that Canada is considering declaring plastics as a toxic substance, and this may have implications on 3D printing activity.
The impetus behind this predicted move is the increasing awareness of the microplastic phenomenon that is happening worldwide. It’s a nearly invisible thing, but microplastics are currently all around you, and probably even inside you.
Wikipedia defines microplastics:
“Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic that pollute the environment. Microplastics are not a specific kind of plastic, but rather any type of plastic fragment that is less than 5 mm in length according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They enter natural ecosystems from a variety of sources, including cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes.”
While we have all been using plastic products for decades, unknown to us was the fact that these objects slowly break down and enter the environment. I’ve heard tales of huge drifts of sand-like plastic at the bottom of urban rivers, or microscopic plastic being in every part of the ocean, where it is inevitably eaten by the local fauna, and eventually us, where the chemistry of the plastic could be doing “something” to our bodies.
Canada Declares Plastic Toxic?
Canada’s move is not to ban plastics or to move away from them. It seems it is more of a regulatory and political move. The Globe and Mail reports:
“Listing plastics as toxic under Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) will provide the government with the authority to regulate and limit certain products.”
Thus, after such a regulatory change, the government could much more easily implement a ban on, say, single-use plastic items like drinking straws. Some regional areas worldwide have already started implementing such rules, as have individuals. I now routinely refuse straws when offered; they’re really not required anyway.
Microplastic Effect on 3D Printing
Much of today’s 3D printing is done with thermoplastics, and every 3D printer operator is well aware of the substantial amount of plastic waste product by their equipment. Failed prints, support structures and fine sanding debris are all quite familiar — and precisely the types of material that will eventually become microplastics in the environment.
My suspicion is that as there is increased focus on the microplastic problem, society will be giving added scrutiny to plastic use. We will never be free of plastic, but it could be used more safely.
It’s likely we will gradually see an increase in the amount of recycling of 3D print material. New materials specifically designed for recycling could appear; recycling equipment could increase in functionality and popularity; manufacturing lines, one of the larger producers of plastic waste, could more widely institute recycling practices.
Some popular 3D printing materials are not currently produced from recycled material, but perhaps that could change in the future. Currently I’ve seen only PETG, PLA and ABS provided from recycled material, and this is largely due to the challenges of collecting and separating unique plastic types from other waste.
We may also see a change in 3D printing procedures and equipment to encourage recycling. A device could have an integrated chopper to dice up waste material into a form more amenable for recycling, for example.
For now, however, most 3D printing operations will still produce waste plastics. But that may begin change over the next few years.