As soon as we settled into the 3D printer room at the CHNM I began thinking about the material slithering through the black square bot in the corner. Based on the few other monochrome red or blue/clear figurines propped on the table, I trusted that the material was some type of plastic. This is a bit of a sore spot for me since every time I mention my research on art and plastic the first thing many people relate it to is 3D printing. Plastic has found a new and prominent place in conversations around dinner and seminar tables thanks to the “MakerBot Empire.” The enthusiasm shared by many people today for odd and barely useful plastic objects rivals the unbridled consumption of and attention paid to all things plastic in the 1960s. It is not surprising then that what ultimately doused the flames of the 1960s plastic fervor threatens to do the same to the 3D plastic printing trend–namely the very real environmental and safety hazards, the plastic aesthetic growing stale, and the development of new technologies (often digital) that drew artists’, designers’, and companies’ attention away from material technology.
There are a few key differentiators between the plastic boom of the 1960s and what is happening now with 3D printing. For one thing, we (the general public) have learned to be skeptical of new technology, especially new materials and anything that can be traced back to a chemical company. The 3D printing industry is well aware that its consumers are skeptical of all things plastic and has taken measure to hedge against the negative connotations of plastic: the relatively early PR position held by the 3D printing industry that 3D printing is in fact a path to more sustainable future is alive and well. Environmentalism did not catch on in American culture until the early-1970s, years after many environmentally hazardous plastic materials were developed and improperly disposed of. The plastics used in 3D printing can often be recycled or are biodegradable.
A second, but related, differentiator is that the plastic materials used in 3D printing are under much tighter safety regulations than any plastic that was developed pre-OSHA (1971). While we were discussing the possible application of 3D printing in art history, I was looking over the Material Safety Data Sheets for PLA and ABS. Not that we should trust that the regulations guarantee that heating and extruding plastic in a minimally ventilated room is safe (there are definitely particles floating around in such rooms that I wouldn’t want to inhale on the regular), but at least we know that MakerBot is working to be transparent about their use of plastics and potential health issues.
One final difference is that there are simply not as many 3D printed objects or 3D printers in circulation. It seems to me that talk about 3D printing outweighs actual 3D printing. With pre-1970s plastics, prohibitively expensive objects were replicated in cheaper materials and produced for wide distribution. Until prohibitively expensive 3D printers are themselves “plasticized” and until the printing process speeds up significantly, the threat of being swallowed in a sea of plastic 3D printed tchotchkes and David replicas is low. I certainly don’t condone frivolous printing, but my greater concern is the culture of stuff, the need to own your own version of a singular object, that drives (in part) the development of printing technology.
This tangential rant on the history of plastic hopefully sheds a little light on the state of plastic in 3D printing. As it pertains to my own work (on plastic), until I reach a point where I cannot go forward without 3D printing, I will most likely avoid bringing more little plastic things into the world. Unless of course what I’m printing is made of chocolate.
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