Eco-friendly laser cutting and 3D printing

As a responsible business owner, or perhaps if you’re a crafter that uses laser cutters and 3D printers at home, then you’re probably already thinking about how to reduce the amount of wasted materials, as well as the cost of running your equipment. You need to be able to stay on budget and not overspend, but your finances are probably not the only consideration when you’re thinking about costs. You’re likely to also be thinking about the cost to the environment, while those who are new to using them will be wondering whether laser cutters and 3D printers are environmentally friendly too.

Given the number of stories in the news, and scientific research being published about the effects of global warming and climate change, most of us are doing as much as we can to act in a more environmentally friendly way, both at work and home. With all these things in mind, in this post we’re taking a look at whether laser cutters and 3D printers are environmentally friendly, and what we can do to minimise the effects of our actions on the environment when we’re using them.

Are laser cutters environmentally friendly?

With laser cutters being the focus of our business, we’re often asked by customers whether laser cutters are environmentally friendly. While they definitely have an impact on the environment – they require electricity, as well as gas and fume extraction systems to be switched on and running, after all – in so many ways, laser cutters are better for the environment than many traditional, manual, and mechanical methods of manufacturing. Let’s take a look at the ways they’re better.

Laser cutters can reduce waste


Laser cutters can reduce waste

One of the main reasons that businesses like laser cutters is because of their accuracy – and that accuracy translates into huge reductions of waste, especially in terms of finishing the product. While that is a great thing in terms of making savings on product, and increasing profits for the business, it is also a great thing for the environment in the longer term too. Laser cutter users are likely to find that they don’t need as much raw material to create the same number of products, if they’re planning their cuts, and using the materials carefully.

If you’re cutting pieces from a single sheet of acrylic, for example, then the accuracy, and refined finish that laser cutting provides means that less excess is required around the edges of each piece for finishing, when compared with traditional machines and manual methods.

Using less raw material is great for the environmental impact of each individual, and each business, but when we scale that up and apply it to the many different types of businesses and industries that use laser cutting – it becomes pretty clear that there are significant benefits to be made for the environment, purely in terms of lower waste. And when fewer raw materials are required overall, that adds up to a smaller demand on the planet’s resources, which is a good thing. That’s great both for sustainable materials like wood, but most especially for products that require oil, and petrochemicals in their creation. 

Laser cutters can reduce energy use

One of the things that we’re all doing at work and at home is to minimise our use of electricity – and not just to reduce our impact on the planet. As costs of utilities are on the rise, so we’re making certain to switch lights off, only filling the kettle with the water we need, and so on. At work, many of us are being reminded to turn PCs and monitors off overnight, rather than leaving them on standby, as well as many other energy saving initiatives.

With laser cutting, although they require plenty of power to run, when compared with other types of machinery – and in particular mechanical machinery – laser cutters can significantly reduce the amount of power that is required to complete a job. Depending on the material being cut, in order to create a suitable finish with mechanical methods, several machines may be required to create a refined finish, from the band saw to make an initial cut, and then on to other machines to refine and polish.

Because the laser cutter provides a much more accurate cut, if other finishing machines are found to be needed (which is unlikely in most cases), it generally will be required for a much shorter amount of time – so reducing the amount of electricity required to power those machines. 

Laser cutters can reduce the number of supplies required

As laser cutters finish a cut much more quickly than manual methods, and fewer machines are required, production costs are lowered – both in terms of the number of craftspeople required, and the cost of the electricity required to power those machines.

Further environmental savings can be made compared with traditional manufacturing methods too, since there are other supplies required for those machines – such as lubricants, and other chemicals such as inks, if the laser cutter is being used to engrave. With these additional chemicals, and machine consumables eliminated from the manufacturing process, laser cutters are clearly better for the environment – and in terms of costs for the company. For start-ups, this is even better, since it is likely that they won’t need to buy those additional machines and supplies at all.

Laser cutters can help to reduce reliance on extra plastics 

For many businesses and organisations like schools and colleges, deterring thefts has meant ensuring their valuable equipment like PCs are asset marked. In many cases, this was done by sticking a plastic sticker, and using a disposable plastic spatula to scrape an ink that contained acid over the sticker – and the staff using the ink had to be really careful not to get it on their skin or clothes. When the ink had cured, the plastic sticker was removed, and disposed of, along with all the other plastic that made up, and packaged, those asset marking kits.

You can already see the problem with this – absolutely loads of single-use plastic. In many cases, those asset marks didn’t deter thefts either, they simply gave the organisation data about specifically what was stolen after the event. Laser engraving means that businesses can reduce the need for all that extra plastic – since the laser cutter can etch, or engrave onto many items, especially as valuable items like PCs get smaller.

Laser cutters can be used for a long time

With regular maintenance, many laser cutters last a really long time – we have many customers that we service Universal Laser Systems for that are over ten years old, and there is no sign of them needing to be replaced any time soon. Check out this example on our Instagram!


Laser cutters can be used for a long time


Unlike some of the PC systems that drive those laser cutters (many of which are replaced on a three, or four year cycle) laser cutters go the distance with the right care, and fewer machines being scrapped is a really good thing for the environment – as well as for your bank balance.

How to keep your laser cutting eco-friendly

When you start thinking about the impact your laser cutting has on the environment, it is likely that you’ll start taking steps to ensure you’re doing as much as possible to make things better – and as we all do more, the better things will get.

Choose the best laser cutter for your needs

This should probably go without saying, but if you’re looking to reduce the environmental impact of your laser cutter use, then you need to make sure you have the best possible model for your needs. If you end up needing to repeat a job to complete it, then that is definitely not great for your costs, or the planet.

If you’ve made a purchase of a laser cutter that isn’t quite right for the needs of your business, it is tempting to keep persevering – particularly if it has been a major investment. But if you’re not getting the results you need, or you need to trade up, then talk to us. Depending on the make and model, we may be able to service, and sell the model for you, (or advise you how to sell it) and help you to get a system in place that does exactly what you need. You might buy a new one outright, or you might decide to lease one of our laser cutters – our packages can provide excellent value for money, and means that we can ensure the laser cutter is redeployed, or disposed of responsibly.


Choose the best laser cutter for your needs


Get the right fume filtration system for your laser cutter

Venting gases that are released from your laser cutting properly is a definite no-no for the environment, as well as the health of the users. We’ve spoken at length on other posts about the materials that should never be cut in your laser cutter, because of the gases that can be released – including chlorine, which can kill within 30 minutes, and cyanide, which is deadly pretty quickly too. When you’re buying your laser cutter, you need to ensure that you have the right fume filtration system in place. This will help to prevent the users being harmed, and will help to prevent any gases escaping to the atmosphere.

Choose your laserable materials carefully

We’re sure you’ve already thought of this, but when buying materials for lasering, try and ensure you’re buying sustainable wherever possible. It isn’t always possible, but where you can and it is suitable, try to buy recycled – such as Greencast 100% recycled acrylic and eco laser rubber.

When you’re buying wood for laser cutting, buying from sustainable sources just makes sense.  If you can buy your wood from sustainable sources that are locally grown, so much the better – because then you’ll be reducing transport costs too. If you’re unsure where different types of woods are grown, you can check this, and if their status is endangered here – this will help you to identify where savings can be made, and to decide if you need to find an alternative.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

We hear this phrase all the time – and really, when there are cost savings to be made as well, it just makes sense to reduce, reuse and recycle wherever possible in your business. Getting rid of single use cups and cutlery in favour of proper kitchenware and washing up, having a filtered water fountain, and replacing lighting fixtures with LED versions that are much more efficient are all steps that you’ll barely notice when you’ve made the changes.

Reducing the number of prints being made, ensuring that waste paper is responsibly recycled (if you have confidential waste, most of the companies that provide this service recycle now) and making sure that everything is switched off rather than on standby overnight and at weekends is a good start. You’ll save money on your bills too!



Reduce, reuse, recycle


Switch to a green energy tariff

We know – given that there has been a number of the green energy suppliers that have folded recently, we can understand that there might be some reluctance to make this change. But the more of us that demand green tariffs, the more normalised it becomes, and the ‘Big Six’ will be encouraged to change to renewables even more.

Changing to a 100% green supply isn’t actually all that difficult, and the ‘Big Six’ – British Gas, EDF Energy, E.ON, Npower, Scottish Power, and SSE* all have 100% green electricity tariffs to choose from. It isn’t difficult to figure out which one is best for your business, and you probably already do this anyway – simply head to a price comparison website.

Are 3D printers environmentally friendly?

The answer to this question is yes, on the whole, and in many ways, 3D printers are environmentally friendly – but, it isn’t quite as straightforward as it is with laser cutters. We’ll take a look at some of the ways in which 3D printers can be better for the planet and increase sustainability, and then we’ll get to looking at some of the points that are important to note, and the areas that 3D printers can improve.


Are 3D printers environmentally friendly?


3D printing can create more efficiently

One of the many reasons that businesses and at-home hobbyists love 3D printing is because of the way that it makes it much easier to achieve shapes and designs that are difficult, or impossible in other manufacturing methods. It means that parts, and whole products can be printed in one go, which dramatically reduces the amount of time, labour and materials are required.

While this results in potentially huge cost savings, there are also savings to be made for the environment too – particularly where parts or products would have traditionally been made from separate components that used different materials. This also means that businesses don’t have to buy in those extra materials, which reduces waste, energy to create each part, and transportation costs. 

3D printing reduces the raw materials required

Because of the point we just made, 3D printers allow businesses (and indeed, entire industries) to become better for the environment on the whole. When parts are 3D printed, they tend to be lighter, and use less raw material. Particularly in industries like car and aircraft manufacturing, this means that parts can be made much more precisely, and much lighter, which results in greater fuel efficiency and lower amounts of greenhouse gases being released.

Whether the parts are being made from metal or plastic, 3D printing means that there isn’t any need to carve pieces from a block of material – therefore scrap can be dramatically reduced.

3D printing reduces the need to make & keep spare parts

Repairing older machines – particularly those that are no longer in production – can be tricky. Depending on the type of machine, parts may not be available, generic parts may not exist, manufacturing new parts may not be feasible, while replacing the machine entirely may be out of the question.

However, as long as there are plans for the part – or the plans can be created in reverse – it is possible to create parts, much more quickly than it would take to engineer the parts in a traditional way, or to have them sent out from the manufacturer if they are overseas.

3D printing allows parts to be made locally

Depending on the requirements of the business, 3D printers are generally pretty small, and space can be found in most offices. Being able to manufacture parts locally means that transportation costs are greatly reduced, as well as allowing businesses to create parts on demand.

This is why Formula 1 teams are using 3D printers trackside. Bringing a 3D printer to each Grand Prix allows them to be able to create parts as they need them, without the additional costs, and environmental impact of dispatching spare parts around the world. It is for similar reasons that that militaries worldwide are using 3D printing in the field – to help military stores to reduce their carbon footprint and to maintain ageing vehicles and equipment.


3D printing allows parts to be made locally


3D printing can reduce the risk of dead stock

Investing in stock means that businesses are tying up cash, that they then can’t use to grow the business further. While some businesses – such as retailers – know that they will clear that stock, other businesses may not be as certain, and keeping stock on the off-chance that it is needed is a costly investment. If demand for the items never arises, then that money has essentially been wasted – and the impact on the environment of creating and transporting the part is all for nothing.

Stock wastage, and dead stock is a big problem for many industries, but it is being dramatically reduced by the use of 3D printers, since as long as the design files and a working 3D printer are available, any products required can be manufactured when they are needed.

3D printing can help to reduce emissions

3D printing reduces the number of manufacturing processes to one, allowing for fewer machines, and factories to be required in the creation of parts. This, combined with allowing parts to be made locally reduces emissions significantly both in terms of transportation, and in terms of the number of factories that need to be involved in the manufacturing process.

In addition to this, 3D printing is much more favourable in that it creates a much lower amount of noise than conventional manufacturing techniques. This means that 3D printers can be used in areas where people live and work, rather than needing to use countryside locations for industrial purposes, which is better for local wildlife, and further reduces transportation emissions too.

Yes, but… The downsides of 3D printing

Unfortunately, although 3D printing has been shown to have a positive impact on the environment, it isn’t quite as simple as this – and there are still strides to be made. While 3D printing allows for energy to be saved when it comes to manufacturing products, most analysis doesn’t account for the environmental impact of raw material production, the use of the products that are created, and waste management.

So, although 3D printing undoubtedly can lead to much better ways of working, and reduce the impact of manufacturing on the environment, there is still much to be done to make the technique even better. Those innovations are happening though, and there are exciting developments with huge potential being announced at least monthly.

How to reduce the environmental impact of 3D printing

Given that 3D printing is better for the environment in a lot of ways, then it makes sense to make improvements to those areas that could be better. You might be doing most of these anyway, but it is well worth thinking about them and consciously looking at the environmental impact of your activity.

Take your time in planning

This suggestion is mere common sense – and you’re probably doing it already! Making sure that your modelling is as close to perfect as you can make it will help you to reduce the impact of your work on the environment. Given that the 3D modelling packages are incredibly accurate, most of us don’t need to be doing multiple test prints and prototypes – especially if there isn’t a business need to document the development process.


Take your time in planning 

Print responsibly

When it is so easy to just create a new print, it can be tempting to do so. But Yale University has suggested that 3D printing on demand, and the ability to create prototypes quickly has the potential to lead to a massive increase in the number of disposable consumer products being created. And while more environmentally friendly 3D printing filament is starting to be created, maintaining society’s tendency towards single use items is definitely not great for the environment – no matter how biodegradable those products are.

Recycle your misprints


Recycle your misprints

Even if you do everything right – really doing as much as you can with your 3D modelling before you send your print to the printer, sometimes things aren’t quite right with the finished print, and so you end up with a dud. Unfortunately, as a rule, you can’t just throw your misprints in with household or workplace recycling services – because both ABS and PLA are classed as Type 7, and most services won’t recycle this type of plastic.

There are now companies such as Terracycle that will accept 3D printing waste, particularly AB printing spools and scrap printing materials, but they can be few and far between, and recycling can be at cost to yourself. However, there are an increasing number of local recycling companies that will take 3D printing waste, and so doing your research may pay dividends for the environment. If you’re lucky enough to find a company, be sure to find out how they accept 3D printing waste, and store it accordingly. They may have restrictions, such as a minimum amount that they will accept.

Recycle your filament spools

Buying filament spools that are made from cardboard, or filament that isn’t sold on a spool is the sensible thing to do if you’re looking to reduce the amount of plastic that you’re using. But we know that many people already have a backlog of plastic filament spools that they’re not quite sure what to do with – but don’t want to just throw them away to go into landfill.

There are a number of companies that have created initiatives that offer recycling for 3D printing waste, including those used spools that you might have collected.

If you don’t have enough empty filament spools to make it worth your while sending them back to the companies that manufacture the filament, then there are some really quite innovative projects that 3D printer owners have come up with in order to reuse the spools. These include using them for storage, making lamps for them and using them as wheels for toys – there are more ideas here. What else could you use them for?

Use a filament extruder to reuse plastics

Some businesses and busy hobbyists may find that investing in a filament extruder – a machine that can remelt plastic and turn it back into filament – may be suitable for some of their needs, and to cut costs and increase the amount of use that they can get out of a single roll of filament. These machines are available to buy, but they tend to be expensive, so it really does depend on how much you’re going to be making.

If you’re an at home hobbyist, you may not be ready to invest a lot of money in buying a filament extruder – but you might be interested in one of the 3D printer filament factory projects that other hobbyists and crafters have put together. If you’re really into the idea, and think you can create a more efficient DIY filament extruder – document the design and the process, since there are plenty of people that would love to create them! 

There’s a lot more to it, of course – but if you’re going to be able to reuse a lot, and make savings (and have fun, if you’re planning on making one, either from an existing project, or your own!) then a filament extruder could be a good move for the environment too.

Stay abreast of industry innovations

There are some really exciting innovations in 3D printing happening all the time – including filament being developed from biodegradable materials, which, when it becomes more widely available, will dramatically reduce the impact of 3D printing on the environment. An example to note is called Flam (which stands for Fungal-Like Adhesive Material) and has been developed from plant matter and prawn shells by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). It might not be suitable for the vegans in your life, but it will decompose without any problems for the environment – which in the long-term, is really important.

In the meantime, other innovative 3D printing filaments that are designed to be as eco-friendly as possible are coming to market – typically now using cardboard spools, and recycled packaging. Many businesses that are innovating in this way are also actively reducing their carbon footprint – meaning that collectively, the industry is moving to be ever more sustainable, and we don’t believe it will be long before great strides are made.

Final thoughts

Keeping your laser cutting and 3D printing environmentally friendly is relatively simple, and just by working as efficiently as possible, and aiming to keep your costs low is almost everything that you’ll need to do to stay on the right path. However, there are still plenty of steps you can take to make things better, and it is in all of our interests to do so – from first-time hobbyists, through to big businesses. If you’re about to get started with laser cutters, you can find out more here. There is more about 3D printers here, and if you’re looking for sales advice, for any of our range, call us on 0333 900 8700.


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