A children’s art class essential and a fun finishing touch for festivals, parties and parades, glitter’s ability to lighten up our lives, and our Instagram feeds, has shown little sign of waning, whatever our age. However, it now appears that the seemingly innocent sparkle has been harboring a rather dark secret. It has been discovered that glitter can have a devastating impact on the environment, and this has led to some scientists to call for it to be banned.
Following the banning of microbeads by various governments, including the United States, Canada and the UK, attention is now turning to other potential hazards, and in particular microplastics. Glitter is made from microplastics - fragments of plastic less than 5 millimetres in length – and when washed off, it ends up in the world’s oceans where it is consumed by plankton, fish, shellfish, seabirds and other marine life, and collects in their stomachs. Not only can this cause them to die of starvation, but it can also contaminate the seafood we consume too. Indeed, according to one study led by Professor Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at the UK’s University of Plymouth, plastic is found in a third of UK-caught fish.
While the amount of glitter that escapes into the environment is unknown, it is estimated that the number of microplastics in the world's oceans totals up to 51 trillion fragments. And it was this alarming statistic that led a chain of 19 British pre-schools to stop using glitter in their art projects, which in turn prompted Dr Trisia Farrelly, an environmental anthropologist at Massey University in New Zealand, to call for a global ban.
However, despite acknowledging the need to avoid glitter, Dr Farrelly is adamant that the responsibility does not just rest on the shoulders of consumers. “Producers need to be responsible,” she said. “They need to use safer, non-toxic, durable alternatives.” And companies do seem to be stepping up and offering plastic-free versions, such UK-based Lush, which has replaced the plastic glitter used in its products with synthetic mica and mineral glitter, and “starched-based lusters”, and Wild Glitter which stocks biodegradable and vegan glitter.
But we can also do our part too. As Alice Horton, a research associate at the UK's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, has said, “I believe we need to promote responsible product use before resorting to drastic measures such as a legal ban,” and to this end, we can look to actively avoid glitter that contains polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP).
So next time you're stocking up on glitter for a party or a festival, or hey, just because, check the label and shop around. Call or email the provider if not listed properly - it is time consuming - but it will help companies know that consumers demand transparency.