Acrylic is one of the most commonly used forms of plastic. You can find it everywhere, from your kitchen containers, fabrics to aircraft windshields. However, with increasing awareness about the environment and green living, people question the eco-friendliness of everything they use (Including Acrylic!)
So, Is Acrylic Eco-Friendly? No, Acrylic is not eco-friendly. It does not decompose, and highly toxic fumes are generated during its manufacturing. Additionally, Acrylic is pretty hard to recycle.
When it comes to the environment, nothing is that simple. To access the eco-friendliness of material, we need to look at the bigger picture and explore things like, can we stop using it? What impact would its alternatives have, and is it possible to replace them with less harmful options?
Why do we use acrylic?
Acrylic is one of the most widely used plastics, and there are good reasons for it.
- Cheap – Acrylic is cheaper to produce and transport compared to its alternatives like glass. In most cases, Acrylic is half the price of glass. Its lower cost is one of the reasons why Acrylic is hard to replace
- UV resistant – Some specially made acrylic sheets can filter as much as 98% UV light. This makes it an ideal solution to protect sensitive artworks and papers that can turn yellow in the presence of UV light. You can often find Acrylic in museums and art exhibits.
- Durable – Acrylic can endure considerable wear and tear and can last for years without any care. It is relatively easy to clean as well.
- Versatile – Acrylic can be easily cut, moulded and coloured, which makes it multifaceted. That’s why it is the preferred material for many business and households.
What is Acrylic made of?
Acrylic, like all plastics, is made by linking several smaller molecules called monomers into long chains.
In the case of Acrylic, that monomer usually is Methyl methacrylate.
Methyl methacrylate is combined with a catalyst that starts the process in which several methacrylate molecules connect and form Acrylic. The catalyst, however, does not form a part of the final product.
Even though Acrylic itself is not that toxic, but its manufacturing produces toxic fumes.
In fact, in most countries, manufactures are required to carry out the process in a closed environment. The fumes produced during the manufacturing must be cleaned, captured and neutralized before discharging into the atmosphere.
There is also a significant explosion risk during its manufacturing.
The finished Acrylic is free from BPA, which, you might have heard, is a carcinogen. However, Acrylic is found to contain BPS of BSF, which is believed to harm our cells’ functioning.
Is Acrylic biodegradable?
Acrylic, like most plastics, is not biodegradable.
It can stay for more than 200 years in a landfill. Even when it does decompose, it releases several toxic materials and fumes that can pollute the atmosphere and nearby water bodies.
The same durability which makes it last longer is also responsible for its non-biodegradability
Is Acrylic Recyclable
Even though it is possible to recycle Acrylic, but it is pretty hard to do so.
Acrylic is classified under Group-7 in recycled plastics, implying that it is not accepted for recycling in most communities.
Large pieces can be collected and reformed into other objects, but there shouldn’t be any significant wear, stress, and cracks. Sadly, this contributes to a tiny portion of acrylic waste.
Most of it ends up in landfills. And as we discussed above, it does not biodegrade quickly. Acrylic also poses a fire hazard as some variants catch fire quickly.
Life cycle analysis of Acrylic
A 2016 study analyzed the impact of acrylic fibre manufacturing on the environment. The study was cradle to gate analysis, which means it evaluated its impact from raw material acquisition till the manufacturing process is finished.
The main findings of this study were
- Electricity consumption causes the most significant environmental impact during manufacturing. It alone contributes to 82% impact. Most electricity used in the process comes from fossil fuels which further enhances its adverse effects.
- The subsequent biggest impact was on human health, which comprised of 15.9% effect.
- The manufacturing process of Acrylic also negatively affects the ecosystem quality. However, this is only 2.1% of the total impact.
The negative impact of Acrylic does not end there. After its usage cycle, there is a big issue in disposing of it. In most cases, it ends up in landfills where it can stay for hundreds of years.
Environmentally friendly alternatives to Acrylic
Glass: Even though glass is a little more expensive than Acrylic, its environmental impact is much lower. You can practically recycle glass an infinite number of times. glass is also one of the least toxic materials you can use in your kitchen
Steel: Steel is very durable and can be recycled entirely.
Wood And Bamboo Boxes: If wood and bamboo are sustainably grown and harvested, they have a little negative impact on the environment. They are reasonably durable and easily last for years.
Natural Fabrics – Acrylic fibres can be replaced with cotton, jute and other natural fabrics that are much more sustainable and are less harmful to the environment.
Acrylic, despite all its adverse impacts on the environment, is here to stay. It will be a long time before it can be replaced. Most alternatives to Acrylic are either not durable or are much more expensive.
The best thing we can do is to minimize its use as much as we can. Even the small changes made by a large number of people can have a significant impact.
It is understandable that completely discarding Acrylic and its derivatives is not practical; however, we should be mindful of not overusing it. We should try to use its alternatives whenever we can. Sometimes, replacing it with eco-friendly alternatives like the glass is not only beneficial for the environment, but it is also good for your health.