Sustaining one industry can result in the depletion of another. Maintaining a balanced supply against a balanced demand is a counterintuitive concept. Manufacturers want a higher demand than current supply, and distributors would like to see a higher book-to-bill ratio. However, is it possible to sustain that growth without taking more out of the environment than we're putting back in?
If numerous industries frequently thrive at the expense of other industries, then on a broad scale there develops an inherent imbalance. This is the dilemma facing all sectors of the economy. How can companies balance their desire for continuous growth and share expansion without putting a big dent on the environment?
Let's take the example of fossil fuel, the extraction, refinement, and distribution of which can be considered its own industry but which is also supported by a number of ancillary industries like shipping and trucking that live or die on fuel availability and cost. We all understand the potential domino effect where running out of gasoline in our personal lives would have an impact on almost every aspect of our day-to-day routines. Just take a moment to imagine what your life would be like without transportation to and from work or stores or family or friends. How much could you get done that doesn't depend on your weekly dose of gasoline? We also know that there is a finite supply of fossil fuels, and that one day prices may go through the roof, or we may be put on fuel rations in order to control the outward flow if alternatives are not soon developed.
The demand for petroleum and its distillates is increasing, and there is one very important fact I would like to bring to the attention of the reader. We are on the cusp of some pretty serious technology that could hit the rate of fossil fuel consumption dramatically. Currently, plastics that are derived or formulated from byproducts of fossil fuels are in widespread demand in the form of finished goods. In fact, 8 percent of all fossil fuel is used to make plastic, and 35 percent of this goes directly to packaging products. The average household doesn't have a bag of plastic pellets in its garage yet, but that may change soon.
With 3D printers coming on the market at lower and lower prices, there is already a supply chain developing to provide plastic materials in bulk for what is being called “additive manufacturing.” Soon these printers will be in demand for home 3D printers, and the bulk plastic supplies will be as common as ink cartridges are now. I say this because toymakers will be selling kits for kiddies that will include computer-aided design (CAD) files for plastic animals of various colors and forms. In the kit will be bags of plastic pellets. Hobby and toy shops will sell refills, and bulk buys will save the consumer money, so make room in the garage for the world's worst source of pollution.
One of the most serious threats to our oceans is plastics pollution. Plastics constitute approximately 90 percent of all trash floating on the ocean's surface, with 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile. Why is there so much plastic in the ocean? Unlike other types of trash, plastic does not biodegrade; instead, it photo-degrades with sunlight, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, which never really disappear. These plastic pieces are eaten by marine life, wash up on beaches, or break down into microscopic plastic dust, attracting more debris.
It generally takes 500 to 1,000 years for plastic to degrade. Even if we stopped using plastics today, they will remain with us for many generations, threatening both human and ocean health. The average American throws away 185 pounds of plastic per year. Now add the residuals from home 3D printer supplies, and it boggles the mind as to what is in store for fossil fuel demand, accelerated climate change, and our poor, beleaguered environment.
Will some regulatory agency step up and regulate the disposal of products made with home 3D printers? Will the government step in and regulate toymakers shipping bulk plastic? Not in America. This is one problem that we won't look to solve until it is way too late. When our wants become our needs, we have become a spoiled people. Do we need 3D printers in every home, or do we just want one because it could save us trips to the hardware store?
This 3D printing technology is coming in like the purr of a kitten, but it could take us out like the roar of a lion.