Cellulose Acetate- The Dirty Truth Part 1

Cellulose acetate or plant plastic, is known in the sunglasses industry for being the beautiful, biodegradable and best alternative to plastic. It’s often marketed as the only real sustainable and environmentally friendly choice when it comes to eyewear.   

But how true are these statements? Well, you're in for a surprise.

This year when my wife and I decided to change the sunglasses market to be truly sustainable we looked into various different options including cellulose acetate (CA), recycled plastics, wood and even sea shells. We immediately gravitated towards CA because of its beautiful patterns, colors, "biodegradability" and price point. It seemed like an easy choice for us. Its cheap, its pretty, and its eco-friendly. But having been a prior technician in the Navy; I love to know how things are made. I initially thought this is awesome; its plastic made from cotton or wood fibers. I was rudely awakened once I started my research.

Hazards and Sustainability

When I began researching I found that plant plastic was also used in textiles, photography film and even cigarettes. What's disturbing to my wife and I is how cellulose acetate is always described as natural but, it in fact, is very far from it; because it is chemically modified through the use of volatile and hazardous acids. The three main acids used in the process of making CA called acetylation are acetic acid, acetic anhydride, and sulfuric acid. In some cases propionic acid is used in place of acetic anhydride. Most people would think nothing of acetic acid as its found in vinegar. But your household vinegar is a significantly diluted form of acetic acid at only 4-6% acidity. Having worked in a facility that readily used two of the three above mentioned acids, I know the severe health and environmental effects these chemicals can inflict. Each of these acids in concentrated forms are extremely harmful to ones health and the environment so production practices that utilize them are very far from sustainable.

The creation of these acids in of itself is highly polluting.

Acid factories are a significant source of sulfur dioxide, as well as nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, volatile organic emissions and other pollutants, which are associated with the following health and environmental impacts:

  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2) in high concentrations can affect breathing and may aggravate existing respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Sensitive populations include asthmatics, individuals with bronchitis or emphysema, children, and the elderly. SO2 is also a primary contributor to acid deposition, or acid rain. EPA.gov

These acids used to create CA pollute and destroy waterways and ecosystems through mishandling and accidents within factories as well as improper disposal of the products that are made utilizing these chemicals. They cause severe burns, lesions, mucous membrane damage, and respiratory issues. Accidents and spills happen everyday and environmental agencies are not always notified because it means huge million dollar fines for the facility. 

Here is an excerpt from the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for acetic anhydride. Danger! Corrosive. Causes digestive and respiratory tract burns. Causes eye and skin burns. Flammable liquid and vapor. Harmful if inhaled. May be harmful if swallowed. May cause central nervous system depression. Moisture sensitive. Target Organs: Central nervous system, eyes, skin, mucous membranes.

Think about this. Let it sink in. MSDS are written as precautionary measure to ensure us humans safeguard ourselves while in the presence of these chemicals but what about those spills and accidents that are bound to happen. These acids are colorless and odorless so they're indistinguishable from water to wildlife.

It's pretty obvious just from the chemicals used to produce cellulose acetate that it is no where near sustainable. It's quite the contrary actually. It's detrimental to the health and vitality of people, our planet, and wildlife. Sustainability is not just about the retaining and maintaining of the resources we need and use but also the people, the planet and wildlife as a whole. 

We need to do better. We can do better. 

Stay tuned.

This weekend we will dive into Part 2 which will cover the "biodegradability" or lack there of Cellulose Acetate.


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