3D printing is revolutionising manufacturing. By fundamentally producing less waste than subtractive processes and also eliminating the need for large-scale production runs, 3D printing is compatible with a sustainable future. However, at the desktop (FDM) level, there is an issue.

The vast majority of open-format 3D printers use filament as feedstock, which is spooled onto plastic reels (see image). The problem surfaces when the filament has been used and the spool remains – What do I do with the empty reel now?”

Empty spools

Filamentive is more than just a provider of 3D printer filament. The business was founded to pioneer sustainability in 3D printing. Beyond the 3D printing filament – which features up to 90% recycled content – the business model has evolved into one based on circular economy principles. In early 2017, an empty spool return scheme was launched – offering customers a 20% discount when empty spools are returned. This sustainability initiative has proven extremely popular, providing the following benefits:

  • Reducing the amount of plastic going to landfill
  • Increasing home/office/workshop storage space
  • Saving money for customers on high quality 3D printer filament purchases

When the empty spools are received, we ensure we avoid disposal as much as possible, seeking to reuse, repurpose or recycle.

Since launching the scheme, we have realised that part of the problem is a lack of standardisation; different materials, colours, designs, sizes, weights and markings. This is exemplified in the image below.

With so much variation, it is no wonder that users find it difficult to recycle their used reels. It is therefore no surprise that the vast majority of empty reels end up stored in homes/offices/workshops or indeed thrown out into the ‘normal’ rubbish/trash which ends up in landfill and/or polluting our marine and land environments.

Prevention is better than cure

Staying with the environmental theme, let’s take climate change as an example. There two, broad strategies; adapt (e.g. implement natural disaster warning systems) or mitigate (reduce carbon emissions at source). Adaptation is needed in the short-term, but long-term, the cause of the problem itself needs to be addressed.

3D printer users have been highly positive in both their appraisal and use of the scheme, but ultimately it is an adaptation strategy – dealing with an issue once it arises – rather than a mitigation one – stopping the issue in the first place.

Closing the loop

We are incredibly proud of the empty spool return scheme, but ultimately it does not facilitate the fundamental shift required to limit plastic production and consumption. One barrier to achieving a circular economy is a linear mindset;

“We designers have got used to working within the linear structure. We are never asked to think about lifecycles… We don’t think for a minute about what clever things we could do to stop what we make going into landfill”

Replacing plastic reels with cardboard ones has long been a target at Filamentive. After overcoming financial and operational barriers, we’re proud to announce than from February 2018, all 500g and 1kg filament products will be spooled onto our brand new, high quality, 100% recyclable, cardboard reel.

The impact

This fundamental shift in reel design may seem simple, but the positive environmental impact will be profound for the 3D printing industry.

Gartner suggests that there will be 6.7 million 3D printers sold by the year 2020. Assuming that 50% of these printers are desktop, plastic extrusion (FDM) 3D printers, and each printer uses 1 reel of filament per month, it can be predicted that 40 million reels will be needed to sustain market usage. If all these reels were plastic, we will further increase plastic extraction, production and consumption far beyond the planets’ resources. By switching to cardboard, these detrimental impacts are limited.

The benefits of using cardboard reels rather than plastic:

Towards a circular economy

So replacing plastic with cardboard is great for the environment, but what is the overall impact for 3D printing and how does all of this facilitate a transition to a circular economy?

Previously, after filament has been used, the remaining empty reels are typically either stored, or discarded via improper channels. Ultimately, this means more plastic will be produced, which means more plastic waste in both land and sea.

Filamentive are challenging this with a disruptive, circular economy model.

  1. Empty plastic spools (any brand) can be returned to be then reused or recycled
  2. 20% discount given to incentivise users to buy Filamentive 3D printer filament
  3. Once finished, empty cardboard reels can be recycled easily
  4. The quality filament retains customers – ensuring plastic is removed from the market
  5. As Filamentive grows, plastic decreases and 3D printing becomes more sustainable

Both the empty reel return scheme and introduction of cardboard spools are notmutually exclusive, but rather, two crucial components in a process which firstly removes plastic from the market, and then replaces it with a more sustainable alternative.

This is of course not a miracle solution to solve all environmental issues in 3D printing; instead, it is a notable contribution to making 3D printing less reliant on non-renewable plastics. Improvement, not perfection.

By reducing our reliance on plastic, 3D printing is one step closer to achieving environmental sustainability.


As 3D printing grows, the demand, consumption and disposal of plastic will increase. As a producer of 3D printer filament, Filamentive take responsibility for the entire product lifecycle and are passionate about reducing environmental impact of 3D printing. Filamentive boast up to 90% recycled content in their 3D printer filament.

“Isn’t recycled filament bad quality?”

This opinion in held by many, however, we are challenging this negative perception. Although our filament contains recycled content, there is no compromise on quality or mechanical properties.

All feedstock streams are meticulously checked to ensure homogeneity. During extrusion, filament is measured by lasers from 2-axes, with an alarm bell sounding if the diameter falls outside our high standards. Filament is then wound onto bulk spools for visual inspection before it is put onto the individual spools to be packaged. Each batch produced undergoes a rigorous 3D printing test; if we’re not happy with the print quality then it won’t leave the factory, simple as.

This results in:

  • Up to 90% recycled filament, free of foreign debris
  • ±0.05mm diameter tolerances
  • 95%< roundness

Next step…

Curious to see what the hype is about? Worried about recycled filament? Want to try before you buy? Well, request a FREE sample today – don’t just take our word for it! Our filament is used by thousands of makers, businesses and academics worldwide, and our clients include the likes of Open Bionics who use Filamentive materials to produce bionic hands for their on-going NHS trial. Also, 94% of current customers rate us as either very high quality or high quality.

Filamentive is just as wallet-friendly as they are planet-friendly – with low pricesB2B discounts and FREE UK delivery.