The Dilemma of Growth vs. Green

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.

11 comments on “The Dilemma of Growth vs. Green

  1. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 22, 2012

    Douglas–excellent point. One of my biggest pet peeves during the holiday season are the items shrink-wrapped in plastic that are impossible to open without a utility knife (or dynamite.) To some extent, I understand manufacturers' concerns with product tampering and plastic makes for nice displays (just about every accessory imaginable at Best Buy is hanging in a plastic case.) But once you open one of those, it's impossible to put it back together. We recycle like crazy (our recycle bin is often more full than our trash) but a lot of that stuff still slips through. I wonder if there were rules banning the packaging of non-critical products — like connectors, batteries, etc. — in plastic it would make a dent in the waste.

  2. dalexander
    August 22, 2012

    @Barbara, Best Buy is an excellent example. Suppose you have an option to decant products at the store and beside every cash register there is a recycle bin. The Best Buy people do the cutting and removal and give you a paper bag for your purchase including instructions, warranty, and manual if applicable. The plastic is recovered immediately, your fingers don't have to recover, and fot those who want to take home packages to wrestle with, so be it. However, it is that dent you were referring to.

  3. Nemos
    August 22, 2012

    I believe with the proper care can be achieved both, growth and green. For instance in Sweden for every tree they cut they must plant two. In addition a key factor to obtain the above is to control the over consumption therefor the end users must buy with consciousness.

  4. Daniel
    August 23, 2012

    “How can companies balance their desire for continuous growth and share expansion without putting a big dent on the environment?”

    Douglas, is it possible? I don't think, but some efforts can be put to minimize the environmental damages. Now there are some organizations, which are rating the companies/buildings based on how much they are ecco-friendly. The parameters are natural light, air ventilations, natural cooling without a/c etc. If we need a complete ecco friendly environment, we have to think about a company without building or walls, under the share of trees; which is not at all possible.

  5. Houngbo_Hospice
    August 23, 2012


    “I believe with the proper care can be achieved both, growth and green”

    As they say where there is the will there is the way. The problem is that most manufacturers don't have that will for now. They may need some compelling rules from the authorities. Sweden example should inspire other countries as well. Our forests need to be preserved or restored. Unfortunatly some companies will continue to break environmental laws to expoit our natural resources at any cost.

  6. Houngbo_Hospice
    August 23, 2012


    “In addition a key factor to obtain the above is to control the over consumption”

    You are correct on that as well. Over consumption is threatening Earth. “We are living as if we have an extra planet at our disposal” , said Jim Leape, international director general of the environmental conservation charity World Wildlife Fund (WWF). 

    “We are using 50 per cent more resources that the Earth can sustainably produce and unless we change course, that number will grow fast — by 2030 even two planets will not be enough,” added Leape. 

    High-income countries should drastically shrink their ecological footprint and help maintain biodiversity in the world instead on contributing to its  destruction. 

  7. elctrnx_lyf
    August 23, 2012

    I'm not really sure if the individuals or even the governments are really considers about the extra plastic usage. Individual themselves should be made more educated about the use of the plastic and encouraged to use as less as possible. 3D printers are definitely not my favourite as a house hold use.

  8. Wale Bakare
    August 23, 2012

    I agree with you sourcing an alternative printing material is good rather than 3D. That's more harmful to householders. As per education, people's behaviours and attitude are areas needing attention. I do also think, greener stakeholders – government and others have to put incentive as another strategy if that would work enough.

  9. Taimoor Zubar
    August 27, 2012

    Interesting post, Doughlas. Another dilemma facing the economy is the trade-off between current consumption vs future consumption when it comes to energy supplies. In many third-world countries there's a limited supply of oil and gas and hence there's high demand for it by the industry as well as by domestic consumers in the form of fuel for vehicles. It's another dilemma for the government whether to allocate the supply of resources to industry for future growth or to put them aside for current consumption by domestic consumers.

  10. Taimoor Zubar
    August 27, 2012

    Since 3D printers are relatively new in the market and are not so common yet, would it not be a good idea to produce a material (similar to plastic) that can be used with these printers and is also environmental friendly at this stage? We may not be able to stop the use of plastics once the printers become common and the usage increases.

  11. errricwillson
    June 19, 2013

    i am agree with you. I think companies are not realizing that Green is actual growth of us. In matter of 3D printers i alos want tpo add something. Low price technonlogy just added raw materials to society. It was even a good time when we have a our okidata printer not working but we work with it through the years  and 

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