Acrylic is a popular plastic material used in a wide range of products, from bathroom fixtures to car windows.
While its versatility and durability have made it a popular choice, the question remains: is acrylic bad for the environment?
The answer is yes.
In this article, we will explore the composition of acrylic plastic, its biodegradability, toxicity, and sustainability to provide a comprehensive understanding of why it is not an eco-friendly option.
1. What is Acrylic Made of?
Acrylic, also known as polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), is composed of repeating molecular units known as monomers, which are bonded together by a reaction called polymerization.
The monomer used to make acrylic is methyl methacrylate, a derivative of acrylic acid and a type of ester that is made from the combination of an alcohol and an acid.
The methyl methacrylate is exposed to extreme heat, which causes it to polymerize, forming a transparent material that we call a polymer.
This is then shaped, cut, and treated with additives to create the acrylic.
The resulting medium can be used in applications such as construction and automotive components, protective eyewear, and more.
2. Is Acrylic Plastic?
Yes, acrylic is a type of thermoplastic. These are a special class of polymers that are malleable to heat.
They can be melted down and reshaped multiple times without degrading. They are known for their strength and durability.
They are generally lightweight, flexible, and cost-effective, and can be manufactured in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes.
3. Is Acrylic Eco-friendly?
No, acrylic is not eco-friendly, since it has the same issues as other types of plastic.
As the elements of acrylic go through the polymerization process, high temperature or pressure is needed to bond units together into a polymer.
These polymers themselves then need to be processed, i.e., heated and molded, to create the finished product. All of which are highly energy intensive processes.
To give you an idea, a study revealed the annual energy consumption of medium-sized polymer processing companies is roughly 1.2 GWh per year (based on the average energy expended by the four sites measured in the study).
This is equivalent to more than the energy it would take to power 1 million homes for the same duration.
Given that there are roughly 18,500 plants like these in the US alone, that’s about 22,200 GWh per year in total.
In other words, these plants could power all the houses in the US (there are more than 141 million) and then some.
4. Is Acrylic Toxic?
While acrylic plastic is not toxic as an end product, concerns have been raised about the safety of its production process.
Methyl methacrylate, a main component of acrylic, is a reactive and highly flammable substance that can potentially cause severe irritation to workers exposed to it.
According to the CDC, workers in the acrylic production industry are at risk of developing skin, eye, and respiratory tract irritation from exposure to methyl methacrylate.
The EPA has also identified methyl methacrylate as a hazardous air pollutant that can have harmful effects on human health and the environment.
In addition, powdered PMMA (the polymerized version of methyl methacrylate) used for industrial purposes has been correlated in research as a hazardous respiratory risk.
While this risk is most significant to those working directly with powdered PMMA, the experimenters note that as industrial technologies (such as those used in the research) become more readily available to non-industrial consumers, exposure risk may become more significant.
5. Is Acrylic Biodegradable?
No, acrylic is not completely biodegradable.
Generally, plastics cannot or have limited biodegradability. This is because biodegradation requires living organisms, namely bacteria, to break down the carbon bonds within a substance.
Microorganisms digest organic matter, turning it into natural substances such as water and CO2.
Although plastics like acrylic are technically organic compounds, their synthetic composition means they have been bonded together (through polymerization) in such a way that biodegradation is extremely difficult.
In examination, scientists have found that partial acrylic biodegradation is possible, but only up to around 60-80% – the rest could not be broken down.
They do suggest that there be other ways to naturally decompose acrylic, such as certain enzymes.
However, at present, there are no known microorganisms capable of fully degrading acrylic, and although other options are being explored, practical applications are still limited.
6. Is Acrylic Recyclable?
Yes, acrylic plastic is highly recyclable. However, this doesn’t mean that it actually gets recycled.
As it stands, 76% of global plastic consumption is made of thermoplastics.
There are various difficulties and complexities involving the recyclability of acrylic.
From an economic perspective, recycling acrylic has a high return-on-investment potential, as the demand and cost of acrylic have grown significantly in the last few years.
Moreover, it can be fully depolymerized, that is, broken back down into its base units of methyl methacrylate to be used for other applications.
However, despite the seemingly high incentive to recycle acrylic, in the majority of scenarios, most facilities do not have the technology or resources to achieve this.
7. Is Acrylic Sustainable?
No, acrylic is not sustainable.
Firstly, as we already mentioned, the majority of acrylic plastic ends up in landfills.
It does not degrade easily and remains part of a highly energy-dependent industry.
In the latter case, in particular, the energy needed to manufacture acrylics largely depends on fossil fuels.
Burning fossil fuels produced large quantities of carbon dioxide. For instance, we see every kilogram of Acrylic generates 7.13 kg of CO2.
The specific output of acrylic production is rarely shown on its own. Though we can make a rough estimate based on market analysis:
- The US represents the largest segment of the total acrylic market at 37%.
- Germany, which represents a comparatively smaller 16.9% of the total market, generated 495,000 tonnes of acrylic in 2021.
- If we extrapolate based on the US market share, that would put US production at approximately 1 million tonnes of acrylic.
This would mean the US acrylic industry is responsible for approximately 71 million tonnes of CO2 per year, lending itself to one of the primary drivers of climate change.
We must also consider that acrylic is one of the most commonly found types of plastic in the ocean.
Scientific analysis demonstrates that the industries most responsible for acrylic pollution are those involved with motor, scrap, fabric, and appliance manufacturing.
In the ocean, output from these industries ends up in the form of microplastic, which are small particles of plastic debris that, according to research, can:
- Absorb harmful chemicals and release toxic additives
- Contaminate aquatic and terrestrial environments
- Disrupt the cellular membranes of living creatures, damaging cell tissue
8. What Are Eco-friendly Alternatives to Acrylic?
There are a wide variety of acrylic alternatives already on the market or in development. To name a few:
- Bioplastics such as polylactic acid (PLA) and cellulose acetate
- Glass, which is recyclable and infinitely reusable
- Wood, which is a natural, renewable resource
- Bamboo, which is a fast-growing and sustainable alternative to wood
- Cork, which is a natural, renewable, and biodegradable material
- Hemp plastic, made from the fibers of the hemp plant
- Recycled plastic, which conserves resources and reduces waste
Of course, each of these alternatives has its own pros and cons, so the best choice depends on the specific use case.