Turning Waste into Opportunity: 3D Printing and the Circular Economy

By on May 22nd, 2024 in Ideas, news

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As technology advances, it has the potential to play a critical role in building a more sustainable future.

In recent years, a number of different technologies have emerged as potential answers to climate change and waste concerns, including AI and IoT — but what about 3D printing?

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), has gained a lot of attention recently due to its wide application scope for numerous industries, including healthcare, automotive, construction, aerospace, and more. It is being counted among some of the most disruptive technologies that will play a role in the fourth industrial revolution. As such, the global AM market is expected to grow to around $37 billion by 2026

However, it’s not only its wide range of applications that makes 3D printing so attractive. It’s also the fact that AM has the potential to help reduce waste and drive the creation of more sustainable products, enabling a circular economy. 

What is a Circular Economy?

Traditionally, our economy has been built on a linear methodology, which operates by using resources from nature, turning those resources into products, and then discarding products after we are done with them. This type of economy, as we have grown to understand, is very wasteful and damaging to the environment. 

A circular economy, in contrast, is one that seeks to create a closed-loop flow of resources. The point is to keep materials in circulation for as long as possible. Instead of taking a resource, using it, and then letting it go to waste, the material created from that resource is recycled and reused, placing it back into production. 

How 3D Printing Can Play an Important Role in Generating a Circular Economy

The primary principles of a circular economy are reduce, reuse, and recycle (3R). Let’s look at how 3D printing can feed each of these strategies.


Traditional manufacturing processes use methods that produce a lot of waste and use a considerable amount of energy. 3D printing, however, is incredibly efficient because of its additive process, which only uses the exact amount of materials needed. The digital model of AM also means they don’t require as much energy to create materials and products, which translates to fewer carbon emissions. 


In a linear economy, people tend to easily discard products after they have become damaged. However, AM can help prolong the life of products by enabling the repair of broken parts. Most people simply buy a new product instead of dealing with the hassle of waiting for a replacement part, if a replacement is even available, but 3D printers make designing replacement parts for repairs much more accessible. 


The third “R” in the circular economy principle is concerned with taking old materials and recycling them so they can be reused for other products. This concept is one that is already being utilized in AM. Glass waste, for example, is being converted into eco-friendly stone products using 3D printing. Recycled plastics are another commonly used material in AM processes. 

3D printers can also use recyclable biomaterials, such as PLA, which is made from raw starch materials extracted from plants. Other recyclable materials being used include hemp-based filaments, wood-based filaments, and other bio-based materials. 

3D Printing in Construction

The construction industry is an excellent example of how AM is already having a positive impact on sustainability and creating a circular economy. 3D printing is becoming more common in construction for its many applications, including designing custom building parts, creating prototypes, and constructing entire buildings. 

Using recycled materials, AM can turn plastics and previously used building debris into new, viable building materials. Los Angeles-based startup Azure, for example, is using recycled plastic materials to 3D print prefab tiny homes

Additive Manufacturing and the Future of Supply Chains

3D printing is expected to radically change supply chains as global economies start pushing for the adoption of more sustainable practices. Already, there is a high demand for companies to start designing greener products, leading to strategies such as using biodegradable and recycled materials, reducing the use of scarce natural resources, minimizing energy usage, and embracing minimalist design. 

All of these strategies are possible with additive manufacturing as indicated with the 3R principle discussed above. As more organizations start looking for ways to improve their operations to meet their sustainability goals, 3D printing might become one of the greatest solutions in supporting such efforts. 

Final Thoughts

One of the key factors in driving AM for greater sustainability in a circular economy will be pushing for the use of more recyclable materials. As it stands, a lot of 3D printing processes still utilize newer plastics, and plastic waste is an ever-growing problem. Thus, as more companies integrate 3D printing into their operations, it will be important for them to consider alternative recyclable materials from the start, as opposed to relying on the plastic materials that are readily available.

By Indiana Lee

Indiana Lee is a writer and journalist from the Pacific Northwest with a passion for covering technological advancements, social justice, sustainability, and more. In her off time you can find her deep in the mountains with her two dogs. Follow her work on Twitter @indianalee3 or reach her at [email protected]