Glitter seems like a harmless bit of fun, but its environmental impact has led some scientists to call for it to be banned.
Most glitter is made from plastic, and the small size of its particles makes it a potential ecological hazard, particularly in the oceans.
“I think all glitter should be banned, because it’s microplastic,” said Dr Trisia Farrelly, an environmental anthropologist at Massey University.
Microplastics are fragments of plastic less than 5 millimetres in length. Their size makes them an appealing – though dangerous – food item for many animals.
Not only have marine animals from plankton to whales been documented eating plastic, often with fatal consequences, microplastics can end up inside us when we consume seafood. One study led by Professor Richard Thompson reported that plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish.
Some estimates place the number of microplastics in the world's ocean at up to 51 trillion fragments in total.
While many microplastics result from plastic debris breaking down into ever-smaller pieces, tiny particles called microbeads are manufactured specifically for addition to cosmetic and health products.
A ban on microbeads will come into force in the UK next year, after scientists and campaigners made the devastating impact clear.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove said that plastic waste was “putting marine wildlife under serious threat”.
Glitter could be an overlooked component in the wider problem of marine plastic pollution, and they are used in a wide range of products.
“I was quite concerned when somebody bought my daughters some shower gel that had glitter particles in it,” said Professor Thompson.
“That stuff is going to escape down the plughole and potentially enter the environment,” he said.
“When people think about glitter they think of party and dress-up glitter,” said Dr Trisia Farrelly, an environmental anthropologist at Massey University. “But glitter includes cosmetic glitters as well, the more everyday kind that people don’t think about as much.”
Most glitter is made of aluminium and a plastic called PET. Dr Farrelly has investigated how PET can break down to release chemicals that disrupt hormones in the bodies of animals and humans.
Such chemicals have been linked with the onset of cancers and neurological diseases.
With attention fixed on microbeads, other forms of plastic – including glitter – are being ignored. “No one knows that glitter is made of plastic,” says Noemi Lamanna, co-founder of eco-friendly glitter distributor Eco Glitter Fun. “We were heartbroken when we found out.”
As in the UK, the government in Dr Farrelly’s native New Zealand has also taken steps towards curtailing the use of microbeads, but she says it is currently unclear whether or not this will include glitters.
According to a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, if glitter is incorporated into ‘rinse-off’ cosmetics and personal care products it will be covered by the 2018 ban. Other glitters, however, will not.
Professor Thompson said that an outright ban might not be necessary, emphasising a pragmatic approach that considers the likelihood it will end up in the environment.
Moreover, eco-friendly glitter that breaks down quickly could be a viable replacement that doesn’t end up in the food chain.
The cosmetics chain Lush has replaced glitter in its products with synthetic, biodegradable alternatives in a move praised by Dr Sue Kinsey, senior pollution policy officer at the Marine Conservation Society. “It’s a positive move by the company, who have listened to advice and clearly understand the threat,” she said.
“It also sends out a clear message to their customers who will hopefully try and make the right choices in other areas of their shopping,” she said.
Avoiding cosmetic glitter and microbeads is a “no-brainer”, Dr Ferrelly said, but added that change needs to come from the top down.
“I’m sick and tired of consumers being help responsible for trying to avoid this stuff. I mean it’s literally impossible to,” she added. “Producers need to be responsible. They need to use safer, non-toxic, durable alternatives.”
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