Glitter is an environmental abomination. It’s time to stop using it | Adrienne Matei
Glitter is notorious for getting everywhere – touch one sparkly Christmas card and you’ll be finding flecks of the stuff in your food, hair and carpet for months. It’s so obnoxious some people even slather a mixture of it and Vaseline on political yard signs to punish thieves. But the real issue with glitter isn’t that it’s annoying – it’s that it truly does get everywhere: not just in your home, but also into the furthest-flung corners of the Earth.
Glitter, usually made from a combination of aluminum and plastic, is a microplastic. However, unlike other microplastics, which are the tiny (between five millimeters and one micrometer) particles into which larger plastic items like bottles disintegrate over time, glitter is sold in its most environmentally hazardous format from the get-go, just for fun.
We’ve known for years that microplastics are problematic, but new studies keep emphasizing just how much of an impact they are having on the environment. One study from June 2020 found microplastics can become airborne and come down in rain – literally rain down – on protected natural areas we expect would be pristine. This month, researchers from Australia’s national science agency found that 9.25m to 15.87m tons of microplastics are embedded in the seafloor. They’ve been found in core samples from Arctic ice, and in the bellies of whales. Humans are estimated to ingest about five grams of them (the equivalent of a credit card) every week.
This year, several British retailers – including Morrisons, Waitrose and John Lewis – have announced there will be no glitter in their store-brand Christmas products such as crackers, wrapping paper and gift bags. “We’ve taken glitter and plastic out of our festive range this year – so that our customers can enjoy their festivities without worrying about the environmental impact,” Morrisons’ home director, Christine Bryce, explained during a statement about the decision, which will extend to the company’s non-seasonal offerings as well. This revelation is the latest in an anti-microplastic movement that also saw the UK ban microbeads (plastic spheres sometimes added to shower products, among other applications) in 2018.
Here’s the thing: volume-wise, glitter itself does not significantly contribute to pollution. As the New York Times reports, glitter “makes up far less than 1 percent of the microplastics that pollute the environment”. While glitter is damaging – one recent study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials found it significantly harms the ecology of rivers and lakes – the enormously vast majority of microplastics are the crumbled remains of larger plastic items. So is glitter really a problem to focus on, or more of a sparkly scapegoat?
The larger truth at hand is we’re making far too much garbage in general – especially around the holidays, when, by some estimates, we throw out 25%, or a million tons, more trash each week. Glitter may not be the biggest microplastic-filled fish we have to fry, but coating the rest of our junk in a fine confetti of even more hazardous debris does seem like we’re twisting the knife we’ve already lodged into the planet. It’s also salient to note that otherwise recyclable products, like wrapping paper, cannot be recycled when they incorporate glitter. Forgoing the sparkly stuff really seems like the absolute least we can do.
In any case, low-waste holiday decor is becoming increasingly fashionable, with entertaining gurus like Martha Stewart offering guides on hosting low-waste parties and environmentally conscious TikTokers sharing tutorials for how to make festive (and compostable) decorative dried orange garlands. The holidays do not require an excess of plastics to be lovely and bright.
Even if glitter isn’t what tips us into a complete environmental collapse, microplastics as a larger category of pollution are a serious scourge and we should cut down on them any way we can. Let’s ban the obnoxious nuisance once and for all.
Legendary Watergate reporter Bob Woodward will discuss the Trump presidency at a Guardian Live online event on Tuesday 27 October, 7pm GMT. Book tickets here