Back in the depths of a long forgotten past, by which I mean the early 2010s, little plastic spheres called microbeads were a hugely popular ingredient in skincare and grooming products. Microbeads were commonly used for cleaning and exfoliation because their tiny size and rounded shape (under five millimeters in diameter by law, but usually under a millimeter in practice) made them great for scrubbing.
Widespread use came to a screeching halt mid-decade when microbeads got cancelled. Evidence began to mount of microbeads spreading throughout the hydrosphere, potentially carrying toxic compounds known to disrupt endocrine function into human food systems. Throughout 2014, increasing media coverage of microbead contamination in the Great Lakes began to shift public opinion against their use, and Illinois became the first state to implement a ban. Coverage grew throughout 2015, and President Obama signed the Microbeads-Free Waters Act near the end of the year. Other countries have followed suit, with the U.K. banning microbead products in 2018 and China committing to cease production and sale of personal grooming products containing microbeads by 2022.
What does all this have to do with glitter?
Just like microbeads, most glitter falls into the class of microplastics. As a colloquial term, glitter can refer to a variety of shapes and sizes of shiny particles, ranging in material from glass to mica to plastic and beyond. Standard cosmetic glitter is more technically known as polyethylene terephthalate, or PET glitter. It’s essentially a thin plastic core treated with shiny, colored aluminum sealed with an additional layer of plastic.
International awareness of harmful environmental impacts glitter carries as a microplastic has been on the rise for years. While the U.K. has been leading the charge against glitter, the United States has been slower on the uptake. Maybe glitter has slipped somewhat under the radar here, with regulation of ubiquitous products like plastic straws and single-use bags already becoming points of political contention. Or maybe there’s simply a disconnect between people who are aware of the environmental hazards of glitter and the people who are buying and selling it. After all, glitter pollution hasn’t had an obvious crisis event to rally media coverage, as was the case with the Great Lakes microbead contamination. Either way, what should be done?
Should we ban glitter?
Unfortunately, glitter particles are far from the only source of microplastic found in nature. In terms of mass, glitter particles make up a minuscule component of microplastic pollution, with the majority entering marine environments through the gradual breakdown of larger plastic items, synthetic fabric microfibers from laundry and microbeads. One could make an argument that it is unproductive to focus too much on something as comparatively rare as glitter when microfibers from laundry make up 97% of microdebris found on beaches and would therefore stand to pay higher dividends from reduction efforts.
The issue with glitter that makes it such a concern is that, like microbeads, it starts out as a microplastic and has been projected to remain in that form for a millennium before breaking down. Subjectively, I will admit that it’s more difficult to enjoy my PET glitters now that I can’t help but imagine them potentially impacting someone’s health downstream because they ate the wrong bite of fish. While a glitter ban doesn’t seem to me like a productive use of political capital, I do understand not wanting to personally contribute to environmental degradation or public health risks for something so innately frivolous.
Should we throw all the glitter away?
Actually, yes! If you already have glitter or you want to continue to buy it, please do throw as much of it away as possible after you’re finished with it. In practical terms, you can reduce environmental harm by throwing glitter in the trash, rather than washing it down the drain where it will pass unimpeded through water treatment facilities into aquatic ecosystems. Pro tip: try taking it off with a little tape. Similarly, if you have a glittery card or other non-cosmetic item, throw it away in the regular garbage. Against all optimism and basic intuition, it is not recyclable, so please do not wishfully recycle it. While you’re at it, you might consider further reducing your microplastic pollution by washing your clothes on cool to reduce microfiber shedding.
What about glitter alternatives?
Several companies have begun to offer alternatives to PET glitter. The majority of the new generation of “eco-glitter” is either eucalyptus cellulose polymer based or large flakes of mica, a shiny group of minerals. Both options, unfortunately, are complicated.
Many cellulose polymer glitters do not actually break down despite marketing promises. This is because they can be treated with the same non-biodegradable plastic coating as regular PET glitter on top of their cellulose polymer core. Experiments have indicated that these products function the same as PET glitter in freshwater environments, with the same toll on ecosystems. So if you go the eco-glitter route, make sure you can be confident it really is biodegradable. It also couldn’t hurt to try a little home science to verify the claims.
Mica can be naturally derived, which is to say mined, or lab synthesized. Although both types of mica are considered more environmentally friendly than plastic glitters, naturally derived mica is often unethically mined with a significant amount being the product of child labor.
If it’s all bad, what are we supposed to do?
As we become increasingly mindful of disturbingly serious environmental impacts of everyday decisions, working toward sustainability can be demoralizing. Greenwashed product claims that are misleading or outright lying make it difficult to be sure you really are making a more environmentally responsible purchase. Widespread exploitative practices associated with manufacture can make every option seem not just environmentally harmful, but ethically indefensible. Suddenly, even incremental improvement feels simultaneously impossible and insufficient. You feel eco-anxiety interrupting your product research and perhaps a sense of creeping apocalyptic dread sets in.
But is despair helping you move toward sustainability? Is melodramatic all or nothing thinking, about glitter no less, helping you push for more ethical and sustainable manufacturing practices? For me, it hasn’t, and I hope that transparency in my own thought process will help you feel less alone next time you are overwhelmed by the Pandora’s box of issues that arise as you strive for more ethical consumption. As we figure it out together, I hope we can learn to find comfort in doing something better imperfectly, rather than doing nothing at all.
It can be easy to fall into the habit of focusing entirely on individual level choices, like whether to eat a steak or use a glitter eyeliner, or solely systemic problems, like consumerism or reliance on fossil fuels. The reality is that both need to change. We absolutely need to push manufacturers and policy makers to implement systemic changes to avert the worst outcomes of climate change. That means voting for pro-environment policies and politicians, but it also means making improvements where we’re able to in our own daily lives.