Environmental Impact of Acrylic Fabric (And Is It Recyclable?)

You watch the 1980 movie ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy’ and wonder, are there people in the world, who still do not wear clothing over their bodies? The movie depicts a tribe in the south of Africa, that does not wear clothing, except for a small fabric covering their genitalia. Well, movies aside, and fast forward to today, clothing is a basic human need making fashion one of the most valued and important industries in the world.

Textiles are made out of several materials, including animal, plant, mineral and synthetic. The first three are naturally-occurring, but the last, which includes nylons, spandex, polyester and acrylic are made from other materials. Acrylic fabrics are used all over the world and it is right to want to know their impact on the environment. This article will look into this in detail.

Is Acrylic Clothing Bad for The Environment?

Overall, the acrylic fabric is bad for the environment and is primarily because of how it is made. It is also bad for the environment given what the final product can do to the environment if discarded unproperly.

Basically, acrylic fabrics are made with plastic threads, that are made of a manmade polymer fiber, created from fossil fuels through a chemical process. Acrylic fabric is made in a way similar to the production of polyamide (nylon) fabric and polyester fabric. Heat and pressure are applied to fossil fuels, like petroleum, natural gas and coal, resulting in polymerization.

Before going further, understand that the use of excess heat and energy is bad for the environment in more ways than one. Additionally, the process relies on fossil fuels which are non-renewable and are dangerous for the environment as well. It is therefore right to say the materials used, process and final product, will not be sustainable

Polymerization is when two or more molecules bind into a repetitive molecular chain and in this case, the plastic solution is in a viscous form, meaning its state of matter is somewhere between a solid and a liquid.

This plastic solution is then spun through spinnerets, which are tools with holes of a certain size and shape that create the desired properties in the threaded product, whether it be thicker, thinner, hollow, or solid. The solution after being spun through the spinnerets exits into either air or water where it solidifies. The acrylic fibers are then washed, dried, and cut into long or short-length fibers.

Is Acrylic Environmentally Friendly?

Acrylic fabrics are not environmentally friendly.

There is more to the fabrics than just how they are made. Acrylic fiber closely resembles the look and feel of wool fiber, and is used in place of wool or blended with sheep wool or cashmere to make sweaters, knitting yarn, hats and socks, among other products. The problem here is that it can be used anywhere, contributing to damage or dangers to the environment.

First, like nylon and polyester, the acrylic fabric is hydrophobic, meaning it repels water. To clean it, one might be made to believe that it requires a lot of water, thereby using a lot of water and not being environmentally conscious.

Additionally, acrylic fabrics continue to be harmful to the environment throughout their lifetime, releasing microplastics into the supply of water every time they are washed. These microplastics contribute to 85% of human-made debris along shorelines worldwide, including both fresh and saltwater sources

The fact that it repels water also means that it can lead to bacteria growth in the fabric, compromising its structure and resulting in odors. Also, the acrylic fabric will more likely create static electricity and cling.

Secondly, acrylic fabrics are very flammable and can be very difficult to extinguish, unlike wool, which is very difficult to light. Once the fabric is on fire, properties from the plastic or fossil fuels used during production will be released into the environment, resulting in damage to the environment.

Thirdly, let’s not forget the process of arriving at these fabrics, which requires a lot of energy and heat which is not good for the environment.

Additionally, it relies on fossil fuels like petroleum, natural gas and crude oil, which are non-renewable and could result to harm to the environment if used unreasonably. This production process and materials used, majorly contribute to climate change and global warming

It is only fair to add the effects acrylic fabrics have on humans, which in general could also mean a negative effect on the environment. Acrylic fiber is made from the polymer polyacrylonitrile, which is a flammable, colorless liquid that is created from polypropylene.

The EPA has found that inhaling polyacrylonitrile gives the victim similar symptoms to cyanide poisoning. In fact, when exposed to polyacrylonitrile, our bodies metabolize the chemical into cyanide. Acrylonitrile, which is the main compound used in acrylic yarns, has also been identified as being a potentially cancerous agent by absorption through the skin.

Finally, do not forget the effects of such fabric on the environment once it is disposed of in landfills. It can last up to 200 years on landfills and will be releasing toxins throughout such period, to the environment, poisoning adjacent lands, crops and bodies of water

Is Acrylic Fabric Biodegradable?

One word, No! although acrylic might be durable and cheap, it is neither sustainable nor biodegradable. As already mentioned, acrylic may take up to 200 years for such synthetic textiles to decompose.

At the same time, as it decomposes, acrylic releases toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases into the environment, which affect bodies of water and surrounding communities, as well as the global temperatures, respectively. The fact that it is tough and durable, means it will also take longer to break down, making it non-biodegradable

Is Acrylic Fabric Recyclable?

Surprisingly, yes. Although acrylic is not biodegradable, not sustainable and overall bad for the environment, the upside is that it is both reusable and recyclable.

In fact, with the advancement in technology and the spread of awareness, recycling acrylic is becoming more common. Unfortunately, since it is not biodegradable, the process of recycling acrylic is a bit difficult. In the US, acrylic, like nylon, is considered a Group 7 plastic and mostly not collected for recycling.

Nonetheless, acrylic-recycled sheets have specific uses in construction for windows and doors along with lighting components like fluorescent lamps and chandeliers. The medical field also uses acrylic for making baby incubators and certain surgical devices. The diverse material also helps in the construction of vehicles and trains.

And the advertising sector makes use of acrylic for its signs and lightboxes. Though not all acrylic is easy to recycle, continued technological innovation is making the process of acrylic recycling much easier. You can also reuse acrylic, like Perspex, by cutting larger sheets into small pieces and forming them into other products.

Is Acrylic Fabric Sustainable?

Definitely Not! Acrylic, as previously mentioned, is not sustainable. This is primarily because the production process heavily relies on the petrochemical industry, meaning these synthetic materials are dependent on fossil fuel extraction.

Extracting these fossil fuels leads to land degradation, water and air pollution, emissions, ocean acidification, and of course global warming and subsequently climate change. Transporting them could lead to oil spills and the overall disruption of marine life and loss of biodiversity.

Additionally, to make the fabrics, you have to use a lot of heat and energy which leads to air pollution, all of which are not sustainable choices.

Furthermore, the fabrics are not biodegradable and their breakdown process leads to the release of harmful chemicals into the soil and waterways. All these are problems that not only affect the current generations, but also future generations.

The role of sustainability is to ensure resources are available for future generations to find and use. However, the acrylic fabric does very little to achieve this. The entire acrylic production is relatively destructive, energy-intensive, non-recyclable, leads to micro-fibers washing off and requires the use of toxic chemicals.

What Are the Worst Fabrics for The Environment?

1. Cotton

Cotton is a natural fiber that can biodegrade at the end of its life. So, why is it on this list? Well, cotton is one of the most environmentally demanding crops. First, it is water-intensive to both cultivate and process.

To make a single pair of jeans, it will take between 10,000 and 20,000 gallons of water, and 3,000 for a t-shirt. Secondly, the farming process requires very high levels of pesticides and toxic chemicals, which affect the soil and water supplies. Let’s also not forget the effects these chemicals will have on the farmers and local communities.

In fact, according to the World Health Organisation, approximately 20,000 people in developing nations die of cancer and suffer from miscarriages as a result of chemicals sprayed on conventional cotton. Finally, remember that farming cotton prolonged America’s most serious social tragedy, slavery, and in a way, contributed to the American Civil War.

2. Synthetics like polyester, nylon and acrylic

The production of synthetics relies on oil, a non-renewable compound, which is at the core of global warming and climate change. These fabrics are plastic-based and although they do not require agricultural land to grow and use little water during production and processing, they adversely affect the environment.

For starters, they are non-biodegradable. Secondly, they rely on the petrochemical industries for their raw materials, meaning the extraction of fossil fuels. Thirdly, the reliance on fossil fuels for the manufacture of synthetics, brings about detrimental issues, including oil spills, methane emissions, disruption of wildlife and loss of biodiversity.

It is also at the heart of the current global plastic pandemic that seems to have no end. Fourthly, every time you wash a synthetic fabric like acrylic or polyester, it releases microplastics into the waterways, not only polluting the waters but also causing damage to marine life and vital ecosystems.

3. Animal-derived materials like wool, fur and leather

Again, these are materials that can safely biodegrade on their own, but the negativity arises from the production process. Materials like leather, are responsible for huge methane outputs, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and contributes to global warming.

According to the US Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the livestock industry is responsible for about 16% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The livestock industry also uses a lot of water, given that to make a pair of leather shoes, cows will have to consume approximately 2,110 gallons of water. Additionally, they will have to feed on feeds like soy and corn, which require vast amounts of land, meaning deforestation in the name of livestock farming of feed production.

A billion animals can be killed every year for the production of leather fabrics. Next, about 85% of the world’s leather is laced with chromium, an extremely toxic substance that can result in cancers and skin conditions in workers.

Finally, to preserve wool and fur, toxic chemicals are often used, and if poorly managed, could pollute waterways, pollute the environment and affect communities living along the banks.

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About Rinkesh

A true environmentalist by heart ❤️. Founded Conserve Energy Future with the sole motto of providing helpful information related to our rapidly depleting environment. Unless you strongly believe in Elon Musk‘s idea of making Mars as another habitable planet, do remember that there really is no 'Planet B' in this whole universe.