Acrylic yarn is a popular synthetic fiber used for a wide variety of applications, from clothing to household items and many other commercial industries.
However, as our society becomes more environmentally conscious, concerns are rising about the impact of acrylic yarn on the environment.
As we will discuss, there are many issues with acrylic yarn in terms of its effect on the environment and potential toxicity.
In this article, we aim to paint a picture of these aspects and shed light on why you might want to consider a more sustainable alternative.
1. What Is Acrylic Yarn Made Of?
Acrylic yarn is a type of woven man-made fiber made from a monomer called acrylonitrile.
A monomer is a small, simple molecule that can be chemically bonded to other similar molecules to form a larger, more complex structure known as a polymer.
In other words, acrylonitrile is the building block used to create the polymer acrylic that the fiber is formed from.
For any yarn to be called acrylic, it will be composed of at least 85% acrylonitrile.
The other component will usually be comonomers (secondary monomer particles), such as vinyl acetate and methyl acrylate.
2. Is Acrylic Yarn Plastic?
Yes, all polymers are plastics (though not all plastics are polymers).
To create acrylic yarn, acrylonitrile must be heated or put under high pressure to form the bonds between individual particles.
This is called polymerization, which results in the formation of a polymer, in this case, an acrylic (also known as polyacrylonitrile).
The acrylic polymers then go through a process called gel spinning. The polymers are spun around at a high temperature.
This draws the particle chains together before being rapidly cooled and stretched to produce fiber.
It makes the resulting fiber extremely durable and strong, whilst still being light enough to be woven for use in a variety of applications.
3. Is Acrylic Yarn Eco-Friendly?
No, acrylic yarn is not eco-friendly for several reasons:
Research estimates that for every kilogram of acrylic fiber produced, we also get a concoction of various greenhouse gasses, each identified by the EPA as having considerable environmental effects on both humans and wildlife:
Every kilo of acrylic fiber comes with:
- 0.0012 kg of Sulfur Dioxide, a chemical responsible for acid rain, air pollution, and ecosystem damage.
- 0.0007 kg of Nitrogen Dioxide, known to cause ozone damage, eutrophication, and water and air pollution.
- 2.69 to 8.6 Kg of Carbon Dioxide, one of the primary drivers of climate change and global warming.
The mechanisms for these modes of pollution vary, but generally, scientists point to resource use, that is, burning fossils to generate the energy for processing acrylic yarn, and waste discharge, as having the worst impact.
The chemicals used to dye acrylic yarn for commercial use are equally as problematic.
These are composed of acid (those with sulfuric and carboxylic acid), basic (with zinc and chromium salt metals), and disperse (organic-based) dyes.
The components of these, particularly the acid and basic dye, contain PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons).
These end up in water supplies through the dyeing process and cause detrimental effects on marine life.
Researchers note PAHs accumulate in water, building up in aquatic environments, and leading to toxicity, gene changes, and birth irregularities for fish and marine vertebrates.
Another damaging factor of acrylic yarn comes after its use.
Since acrylic yarn is often used in clothes and fabric – washing releases small particles of plastic that end up in waterways or get released in landfills through decomposition.
In a study, these particles were digested by marine animals, having implications on their growth and reproduction.
They also affect wider ecological food chains – for instance, they can end up inadvertently being consumed by humans who eat sea products, such as fish or salt.
According to some scientists, this could potentially have harmful consequences, though it is not yet conclusive how microplastics interact with the human body.
4. Is Acrylic Yarn Toxic?
The production of acrylic yarn is toxic to both humans and animals.
Though it’s unlikely that the end products, such as clothing and material, are directly toxic – it’s more so the process of making yarn itself that’s the issue.
From pollutants released into the air, such as carbon dioxide and contamination of water supplies, there are many ways acrylic production can be harmful.
The manufacturing of acrylic fiber has also been linked to the release of arsenic into both air and water.
As WHO explains, long-term exposure to arsenic is highly toxic and has adverse effects, including diabetes, heart disease, and cognitive disorders.
Another dangerous aspect is again the synthetic dyes. As mentioned, some dyes use metal salts or contain PAHs.
These components, research indicates, have carcinogenic, cytotoxic, and mutagenic agents – meaning they can cause cancer, break down cells, and even affect human DNA.
5. Is Acrylic Yarn Biodegradable?
No, acrylic, like other forms of plastic, is not readily biodegradable.
Firstly, biodegradable, in scientific terms, means that a material can be broken down by living organisms into other substances, such as carbon dioxide, water, or other base elements.
Most studies conclude that biodegradation is not possible for plastics such as acrylic because their bonds are highly ordered and hydrophobic (repelling water), which makes them near impossible for microorganisms to digest.
While there are certain biological substances, such as enzymes, capable of breaking down acrylic fiber to some degree, the main chain of the polymer (also known as the backbone) remains highly resistant to degradation.
6. Is Acrylic Yarn Recyclable?
Yes, acrylic yarn is recyclable.
However, it’s important to note that textile recycling rates in the US are only 14.7%.
Conversely, a whopping 66.47% ends up in landfills, and the rest is incinerated.
In Europe, rates aren’t much better. The average European throws away approximately 11 kg of clothing each year, adding up to 7 – 7.5 million tonnes of textile waste annually.
More shockingly, statistics show that of the 30% of these materials collected for disposal, less than 1% was derived from recycled materials
As it stands, overall, 150 billion garments are produced annually by the fashion industry, and nearly 50% are disposed of in less than a year.
This trend has bolstered a steady rise in textile generation, as well as the amount of waste that follows.
In part, this is due to difficulties in recycling plastic-based materials but also because of the unique properties of polyacrylonitrile.
Unlike other acrylic products, which have resistance to heat, scientists have found polyacrylonitrile will degrade rather than melt under high temperatures.
As a result, we see that the low quality and performance of recycled polyacrylonitrile fibers make the commercial feasibility of recycled yarn unlikely.
7. Is Acrylic Yarn Sustainable?
No, acrylic yarn is not considered a sustainable material due to its resource use.
The primary raw material used in the production of acrylic yarn, acrylonitrile, is manufactured from propylene and ammonia.
Propylene is a petrochemical derivative, which is a non-renewable fossil fuel.
The process of extracting and refining these petrochemicals is energy-intensive and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, which can have a negative impact on the environment.
We also see that:
- The production process of creating the yarn itself requires significant amounts of energy and water.
- The chemicals used in the manufacturing process can be toxic and can harm the environment and people.
- The production of acrylic yarn generates waste products that are not easily biodegradable, contributing to the problem of plastic waste in the environment.
- Acrylic yarn also has a relatively short lifespan compared to natural fibers such as wool or cotton.
This is because it’s difficult to recycle, leading to increased demand for new yarn and more resource use.
Overall, the resource-intensive production process, non-renewable raw materials, and generation of non-biodegradable waste make acrylic yarn a non-sustainable material in terms of resource use.
8. What Are Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Acrylic Yarn?
Here are several eco-friendly alternatives to acrylic yarn that are sustainable, biodegradable, or have a lower environmental impact.
Here are a few examples:
Organic cotton is a natural fiber that is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers.
It is a renewable resource and has a lower environmental impact than conventionally grown cotton.
Wool is a renewable, biodegradable, and durable natural fiber.
It is typically produced with minimal processing and is available in many different types and textures.
Hemp is a sustainable and eco-friendly fiber that requires minimal water and no pesticides or herbicides.
It is a renewable resource and is biodegradable.
Bamboo is a fast-growing, renewable resource that requires minimal water and no pesticides or herbicides.
It can be processed into a soft, luxurious yarn that is biodegradable.
Tencel/Lyocell is a natural fiber made from wood pulp that is sustainably sourced from tree farms.
It is biodegradable, requires less water and energy to produce, and has a lower environmental impact than other synthetic fibers.
By choosing eco-friendly alternatives to acrylic yarn, we can reduce our impact on the environment and support sustainable practices in the textile industry.
However, as with any alternatives, you should consider different factors, such as energy use and manufacturing, before determining whether they are sustainable or not.