All that Glitters… Is Microplastic, Unfortunately

If everyone’s beloved sparkle dust is a pollutant, what are our options?

Glitter falls into that disturbing category of pollutant known as microplastics. (Photo: Rawpixel)

If the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “glitter” is children’s crafts, you’re not alone. But with grown adults embracing unicorns and all things sparkly, glitter is everywhere. Makeup, paint, card stock, lamps, iPad covers, candle holders, clothing, backpacks, slime… the list is endless.

I’ll admit: my love for sparkle runs deep. But only in the past year have I begun to question that love, and whether I should give it up in defence of another: the environment. Specifically, marine life. The majority of glitter is made from plastic copolymer sheets that are then fused with coloured foil, either made from aluminum or a mineral like mica. The problem is that glitter, like all other plastic, doesn’t biodegrade. It lasts forever, basically. Anyone who’s ever spilled glitter can relate to that statement, but the real problem is when it’s washed down the drain.

I’ve begun to question my love for sparkle, and whether I should give it up in defence of the environment.

Glitter falls into that disturbing category of pollutant known as microplastics. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “Microplastics…are minute pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long, or about the size of a sesame seed.” These tiny pollutants have been found in bodies of water all over the world — from the middle of the Pacific, to Antarctic waters, to inland lakes and riverbeds — at increasingly alarming levels. They’re frequently too small to be filtered out in water treatment plants, making them impossible to remove.

A 2014 study estimated upwards of 5 trillion pieces of microplastic pollute the world’s oceans. But after further study, scientists now agree this is a gross underestimate. They float through lakes, rivers, and oceans, and are consumed by all kinds of aquatic life, from the tiniest invertebrates all the way up to turtles, seals, and whales.

Nearly a year ago, New Zealand environmental anthropologist Dr. Trisia Farrelly made headlines calling for a ban on glitter. The idea spread like wildfire, and soon every outlet from Slate to CNN had weighed in. As yet, no anti-glitter legislation has been developed, and there hasn’t been any research into glitter’s specific effect on aquatic ecosystems.

When asked about the issue of glitter and its role as a microplastic pollutant, Jerry Slaff, a spokesperson from the NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, explained in an email that their research “has not focused specifically on glitter,” thus far. “However,” he continued, “…[the] NOAA would have the same concerns as we have with other types of microplastics and marine debris in general.”

If glitter is the hook to get people to understand what they do in their homes has lasting impact on the ocean, then I’m all in favour of talking about glitter.

What we do know is that glitter is a microplastic, and microplastics attract toxic chemicals like triclosan. As a wide variety of aquatic life ingests these tiny particles, the toxins they’ve attracted are absorbed by (and can harm) organisms at every level of the food chain. In 2015, the US passed the “Microbead-free Waters Act,” banning the sale and distribution of cosmetics and toiletries containing plastic microbeads. Canada took longer; its ban was only passed in 2017. While there isn’t yet conclusive evidence that microplastics are toxic to humans, it’s well established that certain types of plastic leech potentially harmful chemicals.

Dr. Joel Baker — an environmental science professor at the University of Washington and science director at the Center for Urban Waters — isn’t sure glitter is worth focusing on. “Glitter is literally a drop in the bucket. Of the inventory of plastic in the ocean, how much of it comes from glitter? The answer is almost none,” he told me over the phone.

He then paused and changed his tone. “Plastics are getting into the oceans by the behaviour of individuals and the choices we make as consumers. So if we’re going to change the bigger picture, prevent the plastic from getting in the ocean — if glitter is the hook to get people to understand what they do in their homes has lasting impact on the ocean — then I’m all in favour of talking about glitter. It’s a symbol of the bigger issue.”

Armed with that perspective, I began searching for plastic-free glitter alternatives. The good news? They exist! The bad? You won’t find them at your favourite big-box craft store. I reached out to both Michael’s and Hobby Lobby to find out why they aren’t yet offering biodegradable glitter, but neither responded.

A quick online search for “environmentally friendly glitter” nets results from all over the world, including the UK and North America. Of the glitters I came across online, all claimed to be biodegradable, to a certain extent, with their key ingredient being plant-derived cellulose. Because some of the glitter is made with mica (an inert mineral), it simply cannot disappear completely, but at least it’s not a pollutant.

Interestingly, Meadowbrook Glitter — which has been in business since 1934 and currently manufactures a biodegradable glitter alongside its plastic glitter offerings — states on its website:

The first precision-cut Glitter was manufactured by Meadowbrook generations ago by cutting and clarifying biodegradable cellulose, replacing shards of decorative glass as the sparkle industry standard.

And it seems smaller, local craft shops are more likely to carry environmentally friendly glitter, probably because they’re paying attention to what their customers want. There is, of course, a fairly hefty price differential between the standard plastic stuff and the biodegradable kind.

Knowing what I know now about glitter, I can’t see myself buying it again. But it’s nice to know there’s an option if my kids (oh hell, or me, if I’m being honest) are desperate for a sparkle fix. Perhaps that price jump is a reminder to pay closer attention to where our money is going. Do I really need that sparkly candle holder? If yes, am I willing to shell out the extra money to do it myself with non-polluting glitter?

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