Future of the Environment

Why science wants us to ban glitter

A performer participates in the children's day parade at Notting Hill Carnival in west London, August 25, 2013.  REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth (BRITAIN - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT SOCIETY) - LM1E98P11OT01

Glitter is made of a polymer known as Mylar and its size, normally about a millimeter across, makes it a microplastic. Image: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Grace Donnelly
Data reporter at Fortune magazine, Fortune magazine
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Future of the Environment

Glitter should be banned.

That’s the position of researcher Trisia Farrelly, a senior lecturer in environment and planning at Massey University in New Zealand.

She doesn’t hate the shimmery stuff as a matter of taste or even because of the way it permanently embeds itself on all possible surfaces, infiltrating your life and affecting your sanity. Environmental scientists point out that banning glitter is an important step in protecting the future of the world’s oceans and aquatic life.

A chain of nurseries in the United Kingdom obliged her earlier this month, banning glitter from its facilities and citing the “terrible damage” it does to the environment, according to the BBC.

What is glitter made of?

Glitter is made of a polymer known as Mylar and its size, normally about a millimeter across, makes it a microplastic.

Researchers estimated in 2014 that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic weighing nearly 270,000 tons are drifting in seas across the globe. What’s more, microplastics account for 92.4% of this floating plastic waste. And the size of microplastics makes them look like food particles to fish and other marine life.

One in three fish caught in Great Britain had ingested microplastics, according to a 2012 study from Professor Richard Thompson at Plymouth University. Sea creatures from mackerel to zooplankton have been found to eat plastics, with some species choosing them over their typical diets.

Image: World Economic Forum

These findings sparked an outrage over microbeads in cosmetic products in 2015, with seven states restricting the use and sale of products containing them. Congress went on to pass a federal law to stop their manufacturing and distribution. And now, at the dawn of perhaps the most glitter-filled time of year, attention has shifted to glitter’s contribution to plastic pollution.

Why we love glitter

Glitter and other sparkly items capture attention due to more than just their aesthetic. Humans’ interest in shimmering objects stems from the instinct to find water sources that were vital to survival.

Modern uses of glitter have ranged from experimental military strategies — the U.S. Air Force tried to drop it out of warplanes to throw off enemy radar — to solving murders, and adorning pop icons like Iggy Pop and David Bowie.

Glitter is having a moment, right now. It’s an enduring runway trend and people are using it to break down stereotypes about race and gender.

But environmentalists and researchers argue this moment is also a time to consider the environmental ramifications of sprinkling some extra shine on the world.

Have you read?

Environmentally friendly glitter

Put down the glittery pitchforks. This doesn’t necessarily mean people who like blinding holiday decorations have to choose between sparkle and a clear conscience.

There are some forms of biodegradable glitter on the market. Companies that make them have been replicating the environmentally harmful plastic particles with eucalyptus extract.

An added bonus to this environmentally responsible option is that because these variations typically have less aluminum they don’t stick to everything the way traditional glitter does. But, Farrelly hopes, maybe the eco-friendly trend will.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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