Is acetate fabric biodegradable? (3 reasons why it is not eco-friendly) 

In this article, the biodegradability of acetate fabric will be discussed. Other covered topics would be: 

  • What is biodegradability?
  • What is the classification of waste based on biodegradability?
  • Why should there be biodegradable waste?
  • What are natural and synthetic fabrics?
  • What is acetate fabric?
  • What are the applications of acetate fabric?
  • Is acetate fabric eco-friendly?
  • FAQs

Is acetate fabric biodegradable?

Acetate fabric is made from cellulose (a plant-based material) and hence can be regarded as biodegradable. 

Acetate fabric is silk-like in appearance and is mostly used in wedding and graduation gowns. It is made by combining wood pulp with acetic acid, sulphuric acid and acetic anhydride. 

Although acetate is biodegradable, it is not eco-friendly because it still contributes to environmental degradation. It may contain plasticisers, and microplastics and cause medical complications as well. 

What is biodegradability?

Biodegradability can be explained as a process through which complex waste is broken down into simple waste. This conversion is brought about by the action of microbes. These microbes can be bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, and yeast. 

These microbes break down complex waste into simpler materials so that these simple materials may become a part of nature again. Therefore, it can be said that biodegradability is nature’s way to ensure that there is no waste accumulation. 

This is important because if there is waste accumulation, there will be dirt and pollution everywhere. Imagine if there is no dustbin in your house and you have no place to dispose of your waste. 

What do you think will happen? Your house will get dirty, right? The same is the case with our planet earth. Biodegradability can be stated as nature’s dustbin, and if there is no dustbin, there will be dirt and pollution. 

Now, proceeding with the analogy, consider that you are not able to dispose of waste from your house for a hundred years. You may assume that not being able to do so simply means that your house will become unlivable. 

The same is the case if there is no biodegradability. No biodegradability means that waste accumulated will persist for many hundred years and this will make our Earth unlivable. It will steal the Earth’s capacity to sustain and support life, pushing all the species towards the vicinity of extinction. 

What is the classification of waste based on biodegradability?

Based on biodegradability, waste can be categorised into two classes. These are: 

  • Biodegradable waste 
  • Non-biodegradable waste

Biodegradable waste is the waste that can be degraded by the action of microbes. Examples of this waste may be food waste, animal waste, plant waste, crop waste, agricultural waste, manure, sewage et cetera. 

This waste will be degraded in a short span of time. From some days to a few months. In some cases, however, biodegradable waste may also take up to 3 years to degrade. As it is seen in the case of bioplastics. 

The other type of waste is non-biodegradable waste. This waste can not be degraded by the action of microbes because microbes are unable to break down the structure of non-biodegradable waste. As a result, this waste may persist in the environment for as long as a thousand years. 

Examples of non-biodegradable waste may be nuclear waste, hazardous waste, synthetic polymers, synthetic resins, synthetic textiles et cetera. 

Why should there be biodegradable waste?

You may wonder why waste should be biodegradable. In the previous sections, we have covered biodegradability and what is the classification of waste based on biodegradability. 

It is a matter of piqued curiosity that what happens when there is no biodegradability. In the previous section, an analogy was given which emphasises the importance of biodegradability. 

The current waste generation, today, stands at a whopping 2 billion tons. This means that an average person is responsible for about 5 kgs of waste per day. These figures are also expected to increase exponentially in the years to come. 

It is researched that more than one-third of the waste generated is not disposed of properly and is left untreated in open dumps. This creates a lot of environmental and medical complications. 

To further exacerbate, if the waste generated is more non-biodegradable rather than biodegradable, then it simply means that we are taking away the earth’s capacity to sustain life. 

If there is more non-biodegradable waste, the following environmental anomalies are bound to happen: 

  • Global warming
  • Pollution
  • Soil toxicity 
  • Deforestation 
  • Soil erosion 
  • Floods
  • Unprecedented weather patterns 
  • Droughts 
  • Loss of life
  • Destruction of habitats
  • Disruption of ecosystems 
  • Species endangerment 

The effects of non-biodegradable waste are not just limited to the environment. They also expand to humans as well. These may be: 

  • Lungs infection 
  • Liver infection 
  • Damage to foetus 
  • Neurological impairment 
  • Cancer 
  • Genetic mutations 
  • Behavioural changes 
  • Eye diseases
  • Skin infections

What are natural and synthetic fabrics?

Natural fabrics are made from natural sources such as animals or plants. Examples may include cotton, jute, silk and wool. These fibres are sourced from nature, however, their production can include the use of harmful chemicals like agrochemicals. 

These natural fibres come with some advantages such as: 

  • Eco-friendly 
  • Biodegradable
  • Durable
  • Better absorbance as compared to synthetic fibres 

On the other hand, we have synthetic fabrics. These fibres are man-made and synthesised in the labs. The use of chemicals is important here that convert polymers into fibres. Some examples of these synthetic fabrics may be: 

  • Microfibres
  • Rayon 
  • Spandex
  • Acrylic fibres 
  • Polyester 

These fibres are cheaper and offer the same utility as natural fibres. These fibres also have some edge which may not be there in the case of natural fibres. For example, synthetic fibres (like Dyneema) can be made 100% water-proof making them a good fit for outdoor use. 

What is acetate fabric?

It has been established that fabrics can be both natural and synthetic. Natural fabrics are derived from nature like cotton or wool. Whereas, synthetic fabrics are synthesised by using petroleum products. 

A good example of synthetic fabric can be polyester which is made from ethylene glycol and dimethyl terephthalate. 

Acetate fabric, however, is not a synthetic fabric. Rather it is derived from cellulose. Cellulose is a natural material which is found in plants. 

The word ‘acetate’ is given to acetate fabric because its production involves the combination of wood pulp with acetic acid. 

In terms of appearance, it can be confused with silk or rayon. Speaking of rayon, it is also important to mention that acetate fabric is the second oldest human-made fabric after rayon. 

What are the applications of acetate fabric?

In this section, we will cover the various applications that are anchored with the use of acetate fabric. Because of the soft, shiny and silk-like appearance of acetate fabric, it is mostly used in wedding or graduation gowns. It may also be used in curtains and furnishing.

One of the properties of acetate fabric is that it can melt when provided heat and can harden afterwards. This property makes acetate a good replacement or alternative to plastic polymers used to make sunglasses. 

However, in terms of fabric, this ability of acetate is rather a disadvantage because this makes acetate fabric more sensitive, less functional and definitely less durable. 

Do you remember your graduation day? Perhaps you may also remember how uneasy you were in your graduation gown. That is because all the graduation gowns are made from acetate and this fabric is not breathable at all. Another problem with acetate fabric is that it’s easily wrinkled. 

Is acetate fabric biodegradable?

It has been discussed that for a product or fabric to be biodegradable, it must be made from natural materials instead of non-natural materials. This is because the structures of man-made materials can not be degraded by the action of microbes. 

It also has been seen that acetate fabric is termed semi-synthetic, but it is made from cellulose, which is plant material. 

Therefore, it can be concluded that acetate fabric is biodegradable because it is sourced from nature and not man-made products often sourced from fossil fuels, 

Acetate fabrics may degrade in a short span of time as compared to non-biodegradable products which may take many hundred years. 

Is biodegradable the same as eco-friendly?

It is generally misunderstood that biodegradability is the same as eco-friendly. However, the ground reality proposes otherwise. 

For example, consider the case of biodegradable plastic. Although biodegradable plastic is made from natural materials like sugar beets or cornstarch, it is still asserted that bioplastics are as toxic as conventional plastics. Further, they may take more than 3 years to fully degrade which is not that impressive given the profile of biodegradable materials. 

Another example can be biodegradable glitter. Biodegradable glitter is also degraded by the action of microbes but it is studied that biodegradable glitter is actually worse for the environment as compared to non-biodegradable glitter. 

This is because the former creates aquatic toxicity and disrupts the natural order of aquatic ecosystems. Therefore, it is proposed that biodegradable is not the same as eco-friendly. Many factors are at play here. 

Is acetate fabric eco-friendly too? (3 reasons why it is not) 

Sadly, acetate fabric just becomes another addition to the examples given in the last section. This means that although acetate fabric is biodegradable, it still is not eco-friendly because it causes various environmental threats. These include: 

  • The use of phthalate plasticisers increases the strength and stability of acetate. However, plasticisers are known to cause great harm to the environment. Phthalate is also a petroleum-derived product which is also a known toxin. 
  • Acetate fabric may also lead to a number of medical complications. These may include skin allergies, irritation and respiratory complications. 
  • Since acetate is semi-synthetic, it does contribute to the problems of microplastics which cause detrimental impacts on countless species of marine and land animals. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that acetate fabric is made from cellulose (a plant-based material) and hence can be regarded as biodegradable. 

Acetate fabric is silk-like in appearance and is mostly used in wedding and graduation gowns. It is made by combining wood pulp with acetic acid, sulphuric acid and acetic anhydride. 

Although acetate is biodegradable, it is not eco-friendly because it still contributes to environmental degradation. It may contain plasticisers, and microplastics and cause medical complications as well. 

Frequently asked questions: Is acetate fabric biodegradable?

When was acetate fabric invented?

It was invented in the 19th century after rayon. It is the second oldest semi-synthetic fabric. 

What does semi-synthetic mean?

It means that it is made from materials derived from nature and then combined with chemicals like acetic acid, sulphuric acid and acetic anhydride. 

References 

  • Law, R. C. (2004, March). 5. Applications of cellulose acetate 5.1 Cellulose acetate in textile application. In Macromolecular Symposia (Vol. 208, No. 1, pp. 255-266). Weinheim: WILEY‐VCH Verlag.
  • Suh, H., Duckett, K., & Bhat, G. (1996). Biodegradable and tensile properties of cotton/cellulose acetate nonwovens. Textile research journal, 66(4), 230-237.
  • Sayyed, A. J., Deshmukh, N. A., & Pinjari, D. V. (2019). A critical review of manufacturing processes used in regenerated cellulosic fibres: viscose, cellulose acetate, cuprammonium, LiCl/DMAc, ionic liquids, and NMMO based lyocell. Cellulose, 26(5), 2913-2940.
  • Zimmermann, L., Dombrowski, A., Völker, C., & Wagner, M. (2020). Are bioplastics and plant-based materials safer than conventional plastics? In vitro toxicity and chemical composition. Environment international, 145, 106066.

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