Acrylic is a category of plastic that has uses ranging from electronics, windows, aquariums, and even clothing.
Because acrylic is so widely used, you may not even be aware that a lot of things you have at home are made from it.
But if you are sure that something is made from acrylic and you need to dispose of it, you may be wondering what is the best way to do that?
Can you recycle acrylic, or does it just need to be thrown away?
Whether or not acrylic is recyclable depends on two factors:
- The type of acrylic
- What it is used for
But even if acrylic is recyclable, it usually isn’t accepted for curbside recycling pickup.
How do you know which acrylic products can be recycled? We’ll explain more in this article.
1. What Is Acrylic Made Of?
Since acrylic is a type of plastic, the raw material used to make it is crude oil.
But each type of plastic has a slightly different composition, so the process for making each one is not the same.
What is the same is that manufacturing any type of plastic involves a lot of chemicals and chemical processes.
The first thing you should know is that there are two types of acrylic plastic:
- Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
- Polymethyl acrylate (PMA)
The basic manufacturing process used to create each type of acrylic is the same, but the difference is the type of chemical used to start the reaction.
Without getting too technical, here’s the basic process for how acrylic is made:
- Small molecules called monomers – in this case, either methyl acrylate (MA) or methyl methacrylate (MMA) – react with a catalyst (usually an organic peroxide).
- The monomers join together to form larger molecules called polymers through a process called polymerization. That’s where the prefix poly- comes from.
- Through polymerization, either PMMA or PMA is formed depending on which monomer was used.
- After that, the polymers are poured into a mold which turns them into sheets, rods, or tubes of acrylic resin.
- The acrylic resin is left as-is or combined with other materials to be turned into useful products.
PMMA is the most widely used type of acrylic. It is used to make hard plastic products and can transmit light easily.
You may know it by its more common name: Plexiglas.
This type of acrylic is used to make products including:
- Aquarium tanks
PMMA can also be found in various colors and transparencies. And due to its hardness, it is sometimes used to make countertops, sinks, and bathtubs.
PMA is a more flexible form of acrylic. It isn’t as dense and also has better adhesive properties than PMMA.
Although still widely used, it doesn’t have quite as many uses as PMMA.
Some of the uses for PMA include:
- Textiles (clothing, blankets, carpets)
- Lacquers (paint, waxes, and sealants)
- Baby diapers and hygiene products
2. Is Acrylic Recyclable?
We mentioned that some acrylic plastic can be recycled and others can’t.
But before we get into which types can be recycled, here’s a little relevant background information on recycling plastic.
For recycling, plastics are divided into groups. Each of those groups is assigned a number 1-7.
The number can be found inside the recycling symbol on either the plastic or the packaging for the plastic.
That number determines whether or not the particular type of plastic can be recycled.
Usually, plastics in groups 1, 2, and 5 can be recycled through your curbside recycling program.
Plastics in groups 3, 4, 6, and 7 usually aren’t accepted curbside.
Acrylic is a Group 7 plastic. Plastics included in this group may or may not be able to be recycled, or are complex to recycle.
Acrylic can be recycled, but it is complex to recycle which is why it isn’t accepted curbside.
Most recycling facilities don’t have the equipment needed to recycle it.
Which Types of Acrylic Are Recyclable?
Of the two types of acrylic, only PMMA is commonly recycled.
This is because PMMA acrylic is a solid material that is usually isolated from other materials.
PMA acrylic either comes in liquid form – like in paint or sealant, for example – or it is mixed with other materials – like in textiles and clothing.
It’s difficult and expensive to separate PMA from other materials.
How Is Acrylic Recycled?
PMMA acrylic is most commonly recycled through a process called pyrolysis, which involves decomposing the material at high temperatures.
This is usually done by melting lead and bringing it into contact with the plastic which causes it to depolymerize.
Depolymerization causes the polymers to break apart into the original monomers used to make the plastic.
But, there are concerns about using molten lead to recycle acrylic because of the potential pollution that lead can cause.
3. Can Acrylic Be Made from Recycled Materials?
Acrylic made from recycled materials is not as common as other recycled plastics due to the complexity and hesitancy toward recycling acrylic in the first place.
But, it is possible to make acrylic sheets from recycled materials.
A company by the name of Acrilex has created acrylic sheets made from 30-50% recycled materials and was one of the first companies to do so.
And even though a lot of acrylic isn’t recycled or made from recycled materials, acrylic sheets that are recycled are used in the following ways:
- Construction- specifically, windows and doors
- Medical- baby incubators, surgical equipment
- Transportation- car and airplane doors and windows
- Advertising- signage, lightboxes, exhibit material
4. Does Acrylic End up in Landfills?
A lot of acrylic does end up in landfills, which is a cause for concern because plastics in general are not biodegradable.
One reason that acrylic does end up in landfills is that it isn’t accepted by local recycling programs due to being complex to recycle.
We’ve already talked about why it’s difficult to recycle, but unfortunately, there aren’t many other options for disposing of acrylic other than sending it to a landfill.
5. How Do You Dispose of Acrylic Correctly?
The ideal disposal method for acrylic is to have it recycled.
But, since it’s not accepted as a recyclable material through curbside programs, recycling acrylic isn’t easily accessible.
Recycling acrylic is usually only an option for industrial companies that use a lot of acrylic and therefore have a lot to recycle.
There are companies such as Power Plastic Recycling that will buy scrap acrylic, but again, it’s usually reserved for industries or people that have a lot of acrylic to recycle.
This is because it has to be profitable for the company, so it isn’t likely that they’ll accept just an aquarium you’re trying to get rid of, for example.
That means that the only way some acrylic can be disposed of is by taking it to a landfill.
That’s not the ideal option because it isn’t eco-friendly. But that’s one of the big issues surrounding certain types of plastics such as acrylic.
6. Is Acrylic Compostable?
Acrylic is not compostable because plastics are not biodegradable.
That means that acrylic won’t decompose if you add it to your compost.
Even if it was compostable, it would not add any beneficial nutrients to the compost and would only harm it instead due to the chemicals used to make it.
7. Can I Reuse Acrylic?
It just depends on the type of acrylic material.
Things made from acrylic – such as aquarium tanks and dinnerware, for example – can be reused over and over again provided that they are in good condition and not cracked or broken.
You could also use a can of acrylic paint or sealer over and over again until you run out or it has dried up.
But once you’ve used those for their intended purpose, you can’t reuse them.
8. Is Acrylic Bad for the Environment?
Acrylic is bad for the environment because of how it’s made and the fact that there are limited ways to recycle it.
The raw material used to make acrylic is crude oil, which is a non-renewable resource that has the potential to cause pollution during its collection.
Although some types of acrylic are recyclable, there aren’t many ways to do so. There are also those concerns about the recycling methods used.
That leads to a lot of acrylic materials being disposed of in a landfill.
3 Sustainable Alternatives to Acrylic
There are very few alternatives to acrylic that are sustainable and will serve their purpose the way that acrylic does.
However, there are some types of plastic more eco-friendly than acrylic that can be used instead.
Polycarbonate can be used as an alternative to acrylic in the construction and transportation industries.
It is still a type of plastic, so obviously it still isn’t the most sustainable.
However, the production of polycarbonate produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than producing acrylic does.
Polycarbonate is also easier to recycle than acrylic is.
2. Recycled Acrylic
More and more companies are producing acrylic made from recycled plastic materials.
If you need acrylic for a project or advertisement exhibit, recycled acrylic is the way to go.
3. Natural Textiles
Textiles made from natural fibers – such as cotton and wool – are a more sustainable alternative than those same textiles would be if they were made from plastic acrylic fibers.
Some types of acrylic can be recycled, but unfortunately recycling it isn’t necessarily easy or accessible.
Acrylic can’t be recycled through curbside programs.
There also aren’t many local recycling facilities that will accept it due to the complex process that is required to recycle it effectively.
There are more recycled acrylic sheets available for purchase than there were in the past, but a lot of acrylic still ends up in landfills.
The best thing to do is limiting your use of acrylic products or choose a more eco-friendly option.