The problem of 3D printing waste is a growing concern in additive manufacturing. In a 2019 survey, users were asked about their thoughts on (rising) plastic use in 3D printing, and whether they perceived it to be a problem. 

Two-thirds of those surveyed said yes, the rise in plastic use for 3D printing is indeed a problem. Beyond failed prints, unwanted prototypes and support structures, the problem of used (plastic) spools is often underestimated. 

In the same survey, users were also asked about their waste management of empty (plastic) filament spools. The results show that two-thirds of those plastic filament spools are not being reused or recycled- with users indicating that they either accumulate in storage (48%) or simply throw away / landfill (18%).

How do we quantify the scale of the problem?

By reviewing the Empty Spool Weight Database 2020, the average 1 kg filament spool weighs 250g – totalling a net weight of 1.25 kg (filament + spool). In short, the spool alone represents 20% of the total mass of the average filament product. 

In early 2021, Filamentive analysed the UK 3D Printing Filament Market. By aggregating data, it can be inferred that approx. 232,000 3D printers will be installed in the UK by the end of 2021. 

Taking a pragmatic approach, it can be assumed the average 3D printer operator in the UK uses 12 kg of filament per year. Multiplying this by the number of 3D printers in the UK, the estimated 2021 UK 3D printing filament usage can therefore be inferred as approx. 2.8 million kilograms.

Research by Elizabeth Sensky suggests more than 99% of the market is non-recycled filament. Assuming this is also true for the spools (i.e., not cardboard or MasterSpool) – if every kilogram was on 1 kg spools and two-thirds are not being reused or recycled, this is more than 1.8 million plastic reels – or 360,000 kg of plastic waste (at an average spool weight of 250 g). 

The Solution – Sustainable Spools

To minimise waste to landfill and reduce reliance on hard-to-recycle plastic, Filamentive switched to 100% recyclable cardboard spools in 2018 for 1 kg products – followed by 2.3 kg products in 2020. Given cardboard is widely recycled, this packaging change ensures that 3D printing users can easily and simply recycle used spools.

MasterSpool is another sustainable spool option. In short, MasterSpool is a proposed standard for 3D printing filament supply without a spool entirely, further reducing packaging waste. 

The main concept is for filament manufacturers to provide spool-less, filament refills to users who can then use their own MasterSpool – essentially a reusable, 3D-printed reel. Another environmental benefit being a lower weight of transportation – there is also an associated cost saving to this, especially for filament brands preferring 750g-800g weights.

Filamentive explored the MasterSpool concept, with the arguments for and against being summarised in this blog post. 

What’s stopping you from using a sustainably-spooled filament?

Assuming you are not using a sustainable spool option – cardboard or MasterSpool – it is possible that by simply switching your filament supplier to a brand implementing one of these solutions, your total plastic waste volume (by weight) could be reduced by 20% (assuming you are not generating other 3D-printed waste).

In addition to reducing plastic waste, a sustainable filament spool will also reduce workspace clutter – directly impacting productivity. If printing within a business organisation, there is also a direct Environmental Management System compliance benefit (e.g. ISO 140001) as well as a clear alignment with Sustainable Procurement policy. 

Filamentive – Sustainable 3D Printing Filament

Filamentive is the UK leading filament brand, focussed on sustainable materials without compromising quality – guaranteed!

View our Materials Guide here.

Learn more about our Sustainability Initiatives here.