what is acetate

What Is Acetate? Sustainability, Pros, and Cons

The acetate fabric or cellulose acetate is a semi-synthetic material combining natural fiber (tree pulp) and synthetic fiber. 

Acetate has become an essential fabric manufacturers use to make several items, including furniture, home decoration, and clothing. 

In this article, we will explore what the acetate material is, its pros and cons, uses, sustainability, and more. 

A brief history of the cellulose acetate

Acetate goes back as one of the oldest fabrics after rayon. Manufacturers initially invented acetate in Europe as a varnish for airplane wings. It was not until 1924 that it was made as a fabric in the United States1

In its early stages, pollutants discolored the fabric, making it difficult for mass acetate production. However, chemists found a dyeing process to make the material more usable and long-lasting.  

What is cellulose acetate?

colorful acetate
Photo by Prince Abid on Unsplash

Let’s start from the basics. What is acetate? Cellulose acetate is a human-made semi-synthetic fabric made from a cellulosic process. 

In other words, the acetate material comes from wood pulp combined with chemicals like acetic acid, acetic anhydride, and sulfuric acid. The cellulose acetate fibers go through a chemically-intensive process to create acetate flakes. 

Manufacturers then dissolve the acetate flakes in solvents to form filaments and spin them into fibers. The cellulose acetate material is glossy and soft and is often an alternative to fabric like silk and rayon. 

You can find different types of cellulose acetate fabric, including acetate viscose fabric, acetate rayon fabric, and acetate nylon fabric. 

The acetate material, a processed version of the fabric, comes from natural fiber, which manufacturers turn into acetate flakes. They then turn the acetate flakes into dyed goop, cut them into pellet form, and bake them into hardened cellulose acetate blocks. 

The acetate material is thermoplastic, which means it can be efficiently heated. You can also carve, stamp, or inject them into products like sunglasses. You can also embellish them to mimic elements in the natural world.  

So, for example, manufacturers can use the acetate material to mimic hawksbill sea turtles. Formerly, many hunted them for their unique shells, which they used to make jewelry pieces and accessories. Today, the invention of the acetate material has become an excellent substitute for shells from hawksbill sea turtles. Thanks to this, we can preserve our hawksbill sea turtles. 

What is the acetate fabric used for?

Manufacturers use the cellulose acetate material for several purposes. Because of its soft, silky texture, acetate is used as a fiber to make bridal dresses and gowns, tops, coats, sweaters, and other clothing materials. 

Apart from clothing items, manufacturers also use acetate to make products like jewelry, furniture, umbrellas, curtains, drapes, and home decoration pieces. 

Recently, many brands have switched to acetate as a more eco-friendly alternative to plastic for producing acetate sunglasses. It softens when heated and hardens when cold, making it an excellent material for acetate glass frames.  

Manufacturers also use acetate to make cigarette filters to clear nicotine and tar from cigarettes. 

If you want to explore other fabrics, visit our rayon, bamboo, and abaca fabric articles.

Pros and cons of the acetate fabric

peach acetate
Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash

Acetate is a more cost-effective alternative to an expensive fabric like silk. Acetate drapes beautifully and comes in a wide range of colors. However, even with its beautiful qualities, cellulose acetate has drawbacks. Here are some pros and cons of the cellulose acetate fabric: 

Pros

  • The most significant benefit of cellulose acetate is its cost-effectiveness. Acetate production is cost-effective for mass production, making it affordable for everyone. 
  • Acetate is considered biodegradable, which is good news for the environment. While it may not disintegrate quickly, adding chemical additives like titanium dioxide (used to whiten items) quickens the process. 
  • Acetate doesn’t shrink or pile and is resistant to mold and mildew. 
  • Acetate comes in various colors and shades. 

Cons

  • Under high temperatures, the fabric burns quickly. So, you will need to iron it under low temperatures. 
  • You can easily damage the acetate fabric, so you must be careful and avoid applying substances like a nail polish remover and perfume while wearing the acetate clothing. 
  • The acetate material easily wrinkles and rips easily. It may also need toxic stabilizers for more strength. 
  • Acetate material requires more maintenance and does not last as long as other fabrics. 

How to take care of your acetate clothing

Acetate is a fragile fabric that can rip, leaving you with torn clothing. So, how do you clean your acetate clothes? Should you wash your acetate clothing? 

Well, you can wash your acetate fabrics. However, you will need to be careful. You want to check label instructions for guidelines on how to take the best care of your clothes. 

Generally, you can hand wash or knead your acetate clothes using a mild detergent and cold water. Once done, use a cloth to dry it out. 

You can also iron your acetate fabric. However, you must be extra careful of the temperature settings because this fabric burns quickly. Set your iron on low heat and avoid pressing the iron on the cloth too long or too hard. Ensure the material is damp to avoid pressing the iron too hard. 

Lastly, carefully iron the clothes on all sides to smooth any wrinkles.

Is acetate an environmentally friendly material?

Is it sustainable and an eco-friendly material? 

Some parts of the manufacturing process appear to be sustainable. For example, a company in Tennessee, Eastman Chemical, uses certified sustainable tree pulps and a closed-loop manufacturing process to create acetate flakes. 

However, the rest of the production process may get complicated. 

While cellulose comes from natural fiber like wood chips, the manufacturing process is chemically intensive, involving chemicals like acetic acid, acetic anhydride, and sulfuric acid. The acetic ingredients are harmless. However, the sulfuric acid may come with some risks for factory workers. 

Apart from acetic acids, acetate production uses petroleum-based chemicals, which manufacturers use as plasticizers and UV stabilizers. 

Also, various studies link toxins like phthalates to health problems like neurological disorders and hormone-disrupting conditions. 

Can you recycle the acetate fabric?                                             

lavender acetate
Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash

While many recycling centers accept post-consumer plastics, finding a recycling plant for acetate recycling may be impossible. 

So, what happens to your used acetate frames and products? 

Look for brands that accept consumer acetate waste for remanufacturing. You can donate your used acetates to local thrift stores or charity stores.

What is a bio-acetate material? 

Earlier studies tell us that acetate is considered biodegradable. However, further research shows that acetate won’t decompose independently. They require some chemicals to aid decomposition.  

The good news is that bio-acetate and bio-plastic show potential for a sustainable future.  

M49 is an example of a bio-acetate material with mostly plant-based material, making the acetate biodegradable. 

Since the bio-acetate contains more natural plant-based material, it breaks down quickly. However, while bio-acetates mostly come with plant-based materials, the decomposition process may vary depending on the rate of synthetic components present. 

Similar to the cellulose acetate materials, M49 bio-acetates undergo processing. However, unlike the acetate, which uses petroleum-based chemicals, the M49 bio-acetate uses a plant-based plasticizing solution. 

With the advent of new technologies, companies continue to find ways to improve bio-acetates and bio-plastics.

Properties of a bio-acetate material        

What do bio-acetate materials consist of? Well, according to ISO 14855 international standards, a bio-acetate must have the following: 

  • Bio-acetates must have a minimum of 62% plant-based ingredients. 
  • A bio-acetate should have a Sustainability Carbon Certification under the ISCC.
  • A bio-acetate should be bio-degradable based on the acceptable ISO 14855 timeline. 
  • Bio-acetates should be free of toxic plasticizers. 
  • The bio-acetate should be biocompatible according to ISO 10993

To be sure you’re getting a real bio-acetate product, you want to look out for these types of certifications and find out if they are free of Diethyl Phthalate. You also want to ensure the wood pulp has an FSC or PEFC certification and is produced in a regulated environment following the necessary guidelines. 

Manufacturers use bio-acetate materials to manufacture acetate frames for sunglasses and eyeglasses. They also use them to make smartphone covers, medical equipment, household items, and other environmentally friendly products. 

Brands that use bio-acetate materials

Some brands have jumped on the bio-acetate bandwagon, making some of the most stylish and eco-friendly sunglasses. Here are some brands that use bio-acetate materials in their eyewear: 

Stella McCartney 

Stella McCartney
Photo Credit: Stella McCartney

Stella McCartney is an eco-friendly brand that creates some of the most fashionable and eco-friendly apparel following ethical and environmental standards. The brand uses sustainable materials, including recycled polyester, organic cotton, and bio-acetate, for its eyewear. Stella McCartney was one of the first brands to launch a bio-acetate eyewear line. 

If you buy a pair of bio-acetate sunglasses from Stella McCartney, you get them in renewable and compostable packaging, which is great for our planet. 

Shop Stella McCartney.

Opolis

Opolis
Photo Credit: Opolis

Opolis is an eco-friendly eyewear brand that uses bio-based materials, including ocean plastic and bio-acetate, to make stylish sunglasses. Apart from bio-acetate, the brand uses other plant-based materials like hemp, cotton seeds, and red pulp for the frames. 

Opolis sunglasses are biodegradable, making them great for your face and the environment. For every Opolis sunglass they upcycle, they contribute 1% For the Planet and communities involved.

Shop Opolis

Bio-acetate vs. regular acetate: Which is more sustainable?

We have looked at acetate and bio-acetate, which have similar properties and functionalities. However, there are some distinctions between the two. 

Acetate may start from a renewable resource. However, it undergoes many unsustainable chemical processes. Due to its availability and flexibility, many companies use them to make sunglasses and optical frames. But, because of its energy-intensive and unsustainable production, it is not the most eco-friendly choice. 

Conversely, bio-acetate comes from mostly renewable resources like wood pulp and cotton. With bio-acetate comprised primarily of renewable resources, it can biodegrade much faster than regular acetate, making it an excellent option for the environment. 

In conclusion, both bio-acetate and regular acetate have the same functionalities. However, bio-acetate is the more eco-friendly option. 

Final thoughts: What is acetate?

With the rise of eco-conscious consumers, the demand for bio-acetates has only increased. 

With continuous research and improvement in technology, bio-acetates are the future. Supporting brands that follow responsible production practices, recycling, and proper waste management is essential to ensure sustainability and maximize eco-friendliness.

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Pin Image Portrait What Is Acetate? Sustainability, Pros, and Cons
1

Black, K. (2000). From fiber to fabric: acetate. DigitalCommons@USU. 

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash
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