We must have heard that proverb a million times that “all that glitters is not gold”; and we know this in the context of the unreliability of something’s attractive outward appearance. On the other hand, this proverb can also be considered true in an environmental context. Indeed, glitter is a microplastic, composed mainly of aluminum and polyethylene terephthalate or PET (a thermoplastic polymer).
By Laraib Ehtasham (ecologist, creative writer and academic writer)
Generally speaking, microplastic pollution is one of the hottest environmental issues of the current times. According to a famous saying “There are more microplastics in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way”; which seems to be true. In total, it is estimated that humans ingest around 5 grams of microplastics per week. Additionally, they have also been found in cores taken from Arctic ice; indicating that these tiny particles remain in our environment for very long periods of time. In addition to this, various toxic organic and inorganic chemicals also adhere to microplastics. This results in the bioaccumulation of these toxic substances in food chains and the marine ecosystem.
Additionally, shimmering, shiny, and colored microplastics (i.e., glitter) are used in cosmetics, decorative items, clothing, industrial paints, and arts/crafts supplies. Unfortunately, despite their charming appearance, sequins have harmful effects on the environment and Human health. One factor that further contributes to its eco-friendly nature is that it is typically used in single-use items (e.g., greeting cards). Historically, mica-based flakes were used since 40,000 BC by Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Chinese civilizations. However, modern sequins were created in 1934, when Henry Ruschmann (an American farmer) started cutting sheets of mylar and plastic into very small pieces.
First of all, due to being made from PET, glitter does not easily break down or degrade; and it stays in the environment for a long time (up to about 400 years). Second, this attribute of being non-biodegradable wreaks havoc on the oceans and marine organisms, as it enters the oceans through runoff from landfills and sewage (including residential and commercial sewage). As the flakes are generally a few millimeters in size (generally less than 5 mm), they are therefore easily consumable by small marine organisms which mistakenly consider them as food particles; and end up clogging their digestive tract and causing loss of appetite. Additionally, when the PET in the chaff breaks down, it releases harmful chemicals that negatively impact animals. When it comes to human health, the most significant suspected impact of glitter (and microplastics in general) is endocrine or hormonal disruption. Although the health ailments they cause are not obvious for major reasons, it is suspected that if ingested or inhaled in a much smaller size, they can pass into the bloodstream and cause various health issues.
In a nutshell, even though mesmerizing sequins appear to be very tiny and naive, yet they contribute a lot to microplastic pollution. Therefore, the best possible way to prevent further damage from glitter is to prevent their addition to various products. Along with this, replacing conventional glitter with biodegradable glitter can also be a very effective practice adopted by industries. These biodegradable flakes are made of vegetable matter (i.e. cellulose). The question is that the oceans already fall victim to 800 tons of plastic a year, so why should we burden them even more? Therefore, even though these practices for preventing and reducing the use of glitter seem like a measly trial, they will somehow be aligned with the global effort and goal to fight plastic pollution.