3D Morality

I really enjoy printing things with plastic. I love designing something in code, rendering it into a digital model that I convert into instructions for a 3D printer to manifest my code into reality. It’s magic! Without having to chisel stone, I can be Michelangelo. Without beating an anvil, I can be Hephaestus. Whatever I can imagine, I can attempt to print. That kind of creative power is addictive.

At the same time, I contribute to the global pollution of plastic. Just by buying filament, I contribute to the continuation of plastic manufacture. Most of the parts and the printers themselves are made in China, so buying them contributes to global economic inequality. As a progressive, a pagan, and an environmentalist, I cannot in good conscience print blind to the harm my actions cause.

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This activity causes pollution in a very local sense. Some plastics are quite smelly, most leave strings and globs and dust all around the printer itself, requiring regular cleaning. Many projects print with ‘support plastic’, which is designed to be filed away and discarded after printing. Printing errors can also cause complete models to be discarded. Models designed to test the printer’s settings are examined once, then discarded. There is a good deal of waste involved that isn’t obvious looking at the shiny stock photos of a printer rendering a bust of Caesar.

The best result of this activity is an object that takes up space. It seems I can print up objects, but I can’t print up space to match. (At least, not with this printer.) What’s worse is that my interest in a printed object is far below that for what could be printed. So I’m liable to generate prints for stuff I’ll never look at again. (Ask me how often I look in the box of prints I preserved from the last printer.) Worst case scenario: I die in bed crushed under a tower of printed plastic.

So it’s no small thing to be concerned with the moral implications of 3D printing. Filament has the potential for becoming extraordinarily useful, and 3D printing allows us to use filament in intricate ways we’ve never been able to build before. At the same time, it can be extraordinarily wasteful and can allow us to burn through resources faster than ever before. Keeping mindful of this balance while making choices, I tred carefully in this world.

person in welding mask while welding a metal bar
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So far as I know, all of the electronics and mechanical components of 3D printers are all made in China. The purveyors of complete 3D printers are largely in Southeast Asia. The machine I got was made in China by a company with long experience in the industry. They incoporated their experience with customer suggestions to create a model that is hassle-free, assembles well, and easy to work with. It’s a great machine.

Parts for that machine are also all made in China, but I can order them through a Canadian company and avoid Amazon. Plastic is another thing that is largely made in Asia, but US manufactured plastics can be easily sourced, and don’t really cost that much more than imports. The type of plastic used also has its own benefits and risks. Cheap plastic is brittle and disintegrates in the sun. Durable plastics are expensive (two or three times as much!), and can come with unpleasant odors.

Some developments in the world of plastic include the creation of plastics from agricultural products, like corn or hemp, and focusing on manufacturing methods that conserve heat and water. There is a future free of petroleum based plastics, so I have hope that in ten years I won’t have to feel guilty about using fossil fuels to manifest my models.

Balancing the life of use against having to throw away expensive plastic to make one longer-lasting thing is difficult and best made per-project. Single-use items, like printer tests, can usually be done with the cheapest plastics — unless it’s the plastic itself being tested! Gears, nuts, bolts, and harnesses can all be printed in cheap plastic, so long as they are thick enough for the material used, yet they can benefit from and be printed thinner with the stronger nylon- and carbon-based plastics. Heavyweight tools like hammers are best created with metal, so there’s a practical limit to how strong plastic needs to be.

Models of statuary can be printed with relatively cheap plastic to great result. Elements for scale model building can also use cheap plastic without problems. Covers for outdoor projects need stronger plastic — nylon or ABS at least — but the parts inside can be cheaper. Elements built to replace an existing plastic part invariably require the strength of nylon.

3D printing has a place in manufacturing, where it is used to create originals from which molds are created and those molds are used to make acrylic or metal versions of the original. Molds can also be created directly by the printer, further simplifying the process. In this way, a single print can be ‘used’ hundreds of times to create more durable versions of itself.

And this is a fine segue to the point that 3D printing creates lots of things. Things that take up space. So many things. The problem is that there are only really four things I can do with the things I make.

  • I can throw the item away.
  • I can put the item in a box, forget about it for two years, then throw it away.
  • I can paint it and put it on a shelf.
  • I can paint it and give it away.

Since the amount of shelf space in my house is finite and I desire a happy, low-stress relationship with my wife, I am determined to take only a small amount of the available shelf space. This means that I’m either going to throw away what I print, or give it away. I’ve been trying to lean toward the latter as much as possible, as this helps keep the shelves clear and my wife happy. It’s also nice to have something to gift people with, so there’s a bit of moral virtue I can highlight.

brown gift box
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One remaining factor to consider is that some element of my work now is educational for me. I will build things, try things, and learn things from each attempt to create an item. I recognize that a large part of the waste I generate today will be unnecessary in the future as I continue to learn things to do and things to avoid. In the context of having to get the “bad art” out of my hands, I’ll be generating a lot of plastic waste that’s generally unavoidable, except to not print with plastic.

As my scale of production increases, I’ll want to put together some kind of home-scale plastic reclaimation such that discarded plastic is melted back into filament. This, at least, would allow me some ability to claw back the waste stream back into the system. I also want to do more on-request work, so that whatever it is has a place to live and will get used instead of collecting dust on my shelf.

Perhaps the most important thing I can do is to remain deliberate about when and how this machine gets used. It sounds hyperbolic, but this machine is an affront to nature, creating with poison one landfill layer after another. In order to keep the level of harm caused by this machine to a minimum, I must carefully select my projects and have a plan for what is going to happen with the final product. I must select materials that are locally produced with ecology in mind. And I can never forget that an act of creation is also an act of destruction.


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