ADC’s Lisa Cahill recently spoke to designer Matt Harkness about his exhibition Bioplastic Futures. They spoke about the 3D printed waste challenges he's uncovered; the impact of the Maker Movement; and how good design can help solve environmental issues.

Lisa Cahill: What is bioplastic? How is it used in 3D printing and why is it a problem?

Matthew Harkness: Bioplastics are bio-based polymers made using plant matter as their primary ingredient (Australasian Bioplastics Association, 2018). Unlike traditional petrochemically-derived plastics, bioplastics are often perceived by the public as an environmentally sustainable alternative. An example of a bioplastic is polylactic acid (PLA); the most popular feedstock material used in desktop 3D printing practices ( Team, 2018).

In 3D printing, PLA filament is melted by the 3D printer to rapidly produce physical objects from a digital model. Problematically, the user-friendliness and minimal effort required when 3D printing objects can lead to the production of large volumes of bioplastic waste. For example, desktop 3D printers often require minimal set up thus enabling users to produce physical objects quickly and easily (Dougherty, 2013). Underpinning this wastefulness, PLA is also assumed to be easily disposable through biodegradation in a home compost bin or recyclable through a kerbside recycling program. When disposing of PLA 3D printer waste in a compost bin, people often confuse the terms compostable and biodegradable (Carlota, 2019). For example, composting requires controlled environmental conditions (e.g., heat, moisture, microorganisms) and biodegradation refers to the breakdown of organic matter through natural process often involving bacteria or fungi (Australasian Bioplastics Association, 2018). Alternatively, when PLA is recycled it is difficult to differentiate from traditional petroleum-based plastics, therefore, it often contaminates this waste stream and is sent to landfill (Kabir et al., 2020). The assumption that polylactic acid is an environmentally sustainable material and the user-friendliness of 3D printing, neglects the networks required to effectively dispose of bioplastics through composting and recycling.

LC: Your research focusses on alternative uses for bio-plastic waste from the printing process. Can you explain the alternative uses you have designed and how they will help solve environmental problems?

MH: My experiments 3D print with alternative feedstock materials included granulated PLA 3D printer waste and different binding agents such as clay, xanthan gum, agar, tapioca starch, flour, and algae. The goal was to use materials originating from more environmentally sustainable sources while also being accessible; meaning they can be found locally. My practice-based research reusing PLA 3D printed waste aims to shift the conception of 3D printing as a wasteful practice to open up 3D printers as devices that can productively reuse waste materials.

The significance of 3D printing with materials other than PLA is that it challenges the current understanding of maker practice – as promoted by Make: magazine – to foreground environmental sustainability. Although melting and extruding PLA waste into second-generation recycled 3D printer filament is becoming increasingly popular, this process degrades the material and requires virgin plastic to be added in to strengthen the second-generation material (Fattahi et al., 2020). Ultimately, this process maintains our reliance on plastics. By combining PLA waste with environmentally friendly materials, my research aims to minimise unnecessary heating and cooling cycles by reusing the 3D printer waste in its current form.

LC: What is The Maker Movement and how has this contributed to excess waste?

MH: Beginning in the early-2000s, the ‘maker movement’ can be linked to the publication Make: magazine (Dougherty, 2005). Make: attracted the attention of North American ‘do-it-yourselfers’ (DIYers) through articles, interviews, and tutorials, as well as through large-scale Maker Faire science and engineering events (Make:, 2016). Since then, the maker movement has expanded. For example, in 2016, Make: reported a readership of nearly 7.5 million people worldwide (Make:, 2016, p. 3). As part of the maker movement, workshops known as ‘makerspaces’ have become increasingly prevalent in schools, libraries, community centres, and universities (Dondlinger, McLeod & Bigenho, 2017). 3D printers are a key technology within the maker movement because these devices are capable of rapidly producing complex, physical objects while also being affordable to middle class consumers (Dougherty, 2013). In 2020, 753,000 desktop 3D printers were sold in the USA (Leering, 2021, p. 10) and more than three-quarters of these devices use PLA feedstock material ( Team, 2018). As a result of the maker movement, this expansive network of 3D printer users has significant potential to exacerbate overproduction and create large amounts of bioplastic waste (Mota, 2011).

LC: Can the use of 3D printing be reconciled with sustainable making?

MH: I believe 3D printing can be reconciled with sustainable making. To push 3D printing beyond devices that merely extend production and consumption to makers, DIYers, and hobbyists, 3D printers must incorporate alternative feedstock materials such as waste. As it stands currently, 3D printers are understood as a tool for makers content with generating waste. But alternative feedstock materials can help to unlock maker practice and maker spaces to people concerned with environmental sustainability. For example, 3D printing with unusual materials has the potential to support alternative conceptions of maker practice such as 3D printing with bio-based materials, clay, or paste-like food materials. This expansion of the idea of 3D printing could subsequently attract a more diverse group of individuals interested in making such as those interested in environmentalism, ceramics, cooking, or anyone uninterested in producing more plastic waste.

LC: Design has been responsible in many ways for the environmental issues we now face. As a designer what do you think is your responsibility in this area? How do you think good design can make a difference?

MH: As a designer I believe it is my responsibility to design with the entire network of use, reuse, and disposal in mind. I reflect on the idea that materials never truly go away; they merely enrol into increasingly inconspicuous networks. For example, networks of production and consumption, ecological networks in nature or biological networks inside our body. I believe good design can make a difference by making these seemingly invisible networks visible, accessible, and open to question by the public. By incorporating this networked perspective, I think good design can open up and address design’s entanglement with significant social issues such as climate change and plastic pollution.

Explore the exhibition Bioplastic Futures: 3D Printing and the Maker Movement

Matthew Harkness is an emerging designer, researcher, and academic from Calgary, Alberta, Canada currently completing a PhD at the University of New South Wales School of Art & Design. He deploys Actor-Network Theory and co-design practices to critically examine 3D printing technology and its role in maker culture. 

Bioplastic Futures is part of Australian Design Centre’s ongoing dialogue on ideas and issues surrounding 3D printing and emerging technologies, previously explored through projects such as ADC on Tour's exhibition Shapeshifters 3D Printing the Future (2016-2018) and 3D Printing The Future: An Object Platform Publication (2018).


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Kabir, E., Kaur, R., Lee, J., Kim, K.-H., & Kwon, E. E. (2020). Prospects of biopolymer technology as an alternative option for non-degradable plastics and sustainable management of plastic wastes. Journal of Cleaner Production, 258.

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Mota, C. (2011). The rise of personal fabrication. In Proceedings of the 8th ACM Conference on Creativity and Cognition (pp. 279–288). ACM.

Image: Matthew Harkness, PLA Stool, Bioplastic Futures, 2022. Photo: Boaz Nothman.

3D printer waste, installion view 2022. Photo: Boaz Nothman.

Photo of a perspex tank full of 3D printed waste

Bioplastic Futures 3D printing waste, 2022. Photo: Boaz Nothman.