First, there was Plexiglass, then acrylic took the world by storm.
Acrylic plastics became involved in all sorts of products – as part of our paints, car number plates, DVD cases, lenses and stick-on nails.
In recent years, acrylic textiles have become some of the most in-demand materials in the fashion industry. And they don’t seem to be going away either. The acrylic market is projected to grow by a whopping 165 million tons over the next 4 years.
This skyrocketing rise in popularity begs two questions:
- How did this plastic material become so popular?
- Is acrylic sustainable in any way?
Here we explore how acrylic is made, what its most common uses are, and what the environmental impact of such a versatile and popular plastic material might be.
What is acrylic?
Acrylic can go by a few different names: acrylic glass, PMMA, plexiglass and perspex.
It’s a type of plastic known for its versatility, transparency and strength.
The first acrylic acid was invented as far back as the late 1800s, with the first acrylic sheet being trademarked in the 1930s under the name Plexiglas.
The material was initially used as a more economical alternative to glass, due to its optical clarity, excellent heat resistance, and even more extraordinary impact resistance — acrylic glass is up to 17 times more resistant than traditional glass and a lot more impact resistant than polystyrene too!
Another important property of acrylic plastic is its weight. The material is incredibly lightweight, measuring half the weight of ordinary glass.
How is acrylic made?
The material is created by mixing a liquid monomer (most commonly the chemical methyl methacrylate) with a catalyst, like a peroxide, to create a polymer.
The reaction would usually occur in a mold to create the desired form and consistency, with the thermoplastic acrylic sheets used to create plexiglass being the most recognisable type of mold.
The result is a lightweight, high strength plastic, which are the two main reasons for the material’s success.
The lightweight nature of acrylic makes the manufacturing and transportation costs considerably cheaper than producing glass.
When we add in all the other impact and weather resistance properties, it’s easy to see how acrylic has become one of the most commonly used plastics of our time!
In what type of products is acrylic found?
We usually talk about acrylic nails, acrylic paint, acrylic glass and even acrylic fibers, but are these products all made from the same base material?
Well, the answer is yes and no.
We use the term acrylic when referring to synthetic materials containing one or more derivatives of acrylic acid, such as PMMA (plexiglass).
At the same time, we also use the term to refer to polyacrylate materials, which are made from either Methyl Methacrylate or Poly Methyl Methacrylate — exactly the same PMMA that creates the glass alternative.
This means that ‘acrylic’ is more of a family name than a term for a specific product. Each acrylic type will require a different manufacturing process and will be used to produce different everyday products.
We never said polymer chemistry was going to be easy!
With these semantics aside, let’s dive into the top 5 types of products that acrylic plastics are most commonly used for:
1. Screens and lenses
Acrylic glass is incredibly lightweight, transparent, easy to laser cut and tough to break, making for the perfect alternative to glass.
As such, you’ll find that acrylic is widely used for lenses, LCD screens, security barriers, aircraft cabin windows, and other similar panels.
2. Medical devices
Acrylic’s thermal and impact resistance also makes for the perfect material in medical application.
You’ll find acrylic in various medical devices such as syringes, test kits, incubators, surgical trays, and tube connectors being the most common acrylic tools.
Acrylic paint is made by mixing synthetic pigments with acrylic polymers and plasticisers, making for a fast-drying and inexpensive paint.
Although acrylic paints are still hugely common, you can now buy eco friendly paint alternatives made from natural products.
4. Artificial nails
Most beauty salons will offer a full set of acrylic nails, put-on nails made from PMMA and placed just above the natural nail to create intricate designs.
5. Textiles and clothing
Finally, acrylic polymers can also be used to create inexpensive and wool-like fabrics, using woven plastic threads to create jumpers, scarves, and even furniture.
Is acrylic a sustainable material or bad for the environment?
So, is acrylic sustainable in any way?
As one of the most popular types of plastic, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that acrylic is far from eco-friendly.
Plexiglass can be found almost everywhere. While its physical and mechanical properties do make for a great alternative to glass and a decent alternative to wool, its use on such a massive scale makes for one of the most unsustainable materials out there.
Like all plastic, acrylic relies on fossil fuels to source its chemicals, which are then used to power the polymerisation process.
If we consider that in the past year, production rates for plexiglass (Perspex) have increased a whopping 300% in the U.K. alone (and we have the pandemic to thank for that), it’s clear that acrylic’s moment can’t last forever.
Acrylic production is responsible for much of the unsustainable natural gas and petroleum sourcing and even more GHG emissions, two of the biggest driving factors behind climate change.
Is acrylic recyclable or not?
When asking ‘is acrylic sustainable’, your next question might be whether acrylic materials can be recycled or not. Just like with the case of plastic films and bubble wrap, the answer is not that clear-cut!
Theoretically speaking, acrylic sheets are recyclable.
However, the material is not biodegradable and cannot be recycled easily from the comfort of your own home — and your own recycling bin.
If you want to recycle an acrylic container or screen, your best bet will be to use a special waste management service like WasteCare and Plastic Expert, as there is a serious lack of facilities offering waste acrylic recycling.
As a result, acrylic waste has become an increasingly prevalent problem, leading to more environmental pollution and ecosystem disruption.
While some manufacturers are trying to tackle the acrylic pollution problem by patenting eco-friendly plexiglass made from recycled materials like used LCD screens, this solution doesn’t tackle the issue at its very source: Plastic production.
Reusing your acrylic products is always going to be the best course of action, and thanks to its unique properties, cutting your plexiglass into sheets for versatile use can be quite easy.
But if plexiglass production continues to escalate in the next few years as it has in 2020, acrylic waste might become an even bigger issue than PET and PE pollution with more creative, sustainable solutions to follow.