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The Big Smoke Next Gen: The Clandestine Side of 3D Printing

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The Big Smoke Next Gen: The Clandestine Side of 3D Printing

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What does the next generation think of today’s issues? As part of The Big Smoke’s Next Gen program, Zain Hamdia (age 13) explores 3D printing, replacing cardboard, and saving trees.


3D printing is paving the way in advancing the engineering world. Although 3D printing is a very useful tool, many don’t know of its capabilities and application in the everyday world.

3D printing can help with building robots, prototype products of all kinds, parts for cars, and even the cars themselves using a special type of durable, heat-resistant filament. More recently and quite amazingly, clay and cement 3D printers have been used to build entire homes. The advances in 3D printing have been truly remarkable.

While these uses alone have been innovative, the industry has a little-known secret that borders on covert technology. It is called PolyVinyl Alcohol, or PVA filament. Essentially, it is a dissolvable filament. Interesting in concept, but more importantly could solve a huge problem in today’s consumer-driven world.

It all begins with the shipping industry, who are desperately trying to keep up with the demands of consumers to receive items at home. While this has been going on for years, the impact of COVID has forced us into a new level of shipping needs. The pandemic has increased online shopping by 60%!

Also on The Big Smoke

Behind all of this shopping is packing and boxes. Lots and lots of boxes. When you receive a package, it is typically in a cardboard box. 80% of items sold are shipped or packed in a cardboard box. The US alone uses more than 80 billion boxes per year.

Another sobering issue to consider is the number of trees needed in this process. 1 tree is equal to about 150 cardboard boxes and we, as a nation, produce 100 billion cardboard boxes every year. What?! Yes. That means we kill around 666,666,667 trees every year for our cardboard boxes.

Are you concerned yet?

Each person that receives a package has two options: 1) recycle it or 2) throw it in the garbage. Approximately 70% of the population recycles their cardboard boxes. One might think recycling is a good option, but it doesn’t actually reduce the amount of cardboard in circulation, it simply turns it into reusable cardboard.

Meanwhile, companies are still making brand new boxes to meet demands. This will create an overflow of boxes and the only way to truly rid ourselves of them is by throwing them away which, in turn, harms the environment. When cardboard is at a garbage dump, it gets burned, and when this happens it releases mass amounts of methane. Methane is known to contribute to 20% of global warming. Or, alternatively, the cardboard is left to decompose, which can take five years or more.

The next best option that isn’t tossing your boxes in a landfill is recycling. Recycling plants do have their downsides, though. Not only are they unsafe for the environment, but they are also unsafe for their workers. The employees of these plants are exposed to toxic fumes emitted by the machines and inhale large amounts of dust composed of wood, paper, and tiny little bits of metal. In the end, the structural quality of recycled products is poor compared to new ones.

There is an environmentally safe solution to all of this. PVA filament. PVA is very special because it dissolves in water without leaving anything toxic or environmentally harmful as a result.

There is an environmentally safe solution to all of this. PVA filament. PVA is very special because it dissolves in water without leaving anything toxic or environmentally harmful as a result. This makes it possible to 3D print the packaging for our products, have them shipped to us, and get rid of the waste created by the packaging in a clean way.

So, what if it rains while your package is en route, or once it is delivered? Not a problem. It takes 12-18 hours for the packaging to fully dissolve the material. If you don’t want to go through that, recycling is still an option. The leftover package can be ground up and formed into new filament, which can then be printed as new packages.

In concept, the solution is simple, but the process to get there is not. If we were to make this transition, shipping companies would need many of these 3D printers running simultaneously, the printers themselves would need to function at a much faster speed, and the PVA filament would need to be mass-produced. None of this is impossible, but it will take time and has an initial setup cost.

We may get there, or we may not, but you have to admit, making boxes disappear altogether sounds pretty good.


This article is part of a series for The Big Smoke Next Gen.

The Big Smoke Next Gen is a program which matches professional and experienced writers, academics, and journalists with students who wish to write nonfiction articles and voice their opinions about what is shaping the world.

For more information about our program at The Big Smoke, or to become a mentor, please contact us.


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Zain Hamdia

Zain Hamdia is a 13-year-old from New Jersey who has always been passionate about building and bringing his ideas to life. He has created hundreds of projects over the years experimenting with various materials including everyday household items, fabric, wood, metal, and 3D prints. Zain started 3D printing at the age of 8 and has become an expert in 3D modeling and printing. He also loves coding and learning new programming languages. Zain built his first robot at the age of 9, Zainiac 19, which was showcased at several events all over the world. Zain is currently working on his third robot in the Zainiac series. Zain's dream is to go to MIT and start his own engineering company.