Credit: GG Illustrator AJ Duncan (@ajc.illustrates)

Bitter about glitter litter

By Claire Thomson

The use of glitter has a profound effect on our ecosystem. Should we avoid using it?

With Santa’s sleigh soon approaching, it’s important to consider the use of glitter and the concerns that it poses to the ecosystem.

Recent research into the effect of glitter has shown that it may be harmful to the ecosystem; in particular, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Glitter is used in a variety of decorative ways, including on clothing, in arts and crafts, and cosmetics and body paint. It contains microplastics, which takes several years to degrade, therefore littering the riverbeds. Due to the current coronavirus pandemic, music festivals and nights out have been cancelled – but the question of whether the lack of glitter being consumed for these events is helping to curb this effect remains.

Traditional glitter consists of a plastic core made of polyester PET film, which is coated with aluminium and then covered with another thin plastic layer. There have been efforts to terminate the use of PET glitter, with the development and introduction of biodegradable alternatives, such as mica glitter, which is increasingly used in cosmetics, and another version that has a core of modified regenerated cellulose (MRC), sourced primarily from eucalyptus trees, coated with aluminium for reflectivity and then topped with a thin plastic layer. However, scientists have revealed that these substitutes are no better for the environment than conventional types of glitter.

As a type of microplastic, glitter has the potential to have the same effects as other microplastics and should not be released in considerable quantities into the environment. Microplastics in oceans and rivers pose a threat to plankton, fish, shellfish, seabirds, and other marine life when consumed. The plastic bits collect in the stomachs of birds, causing starvation, which can ultimately lead to death. There is a constantly increasing worry about its effects on fish and other marine life.

A study, led by Dr Dannielle Green of Anglia Ruskin University, is the first to examine the impact of glitter on freshwater habitats. After 36 days, research showed that the presence of glitter halved the root length of common duckweed, and levels of chlorophyll in the water were three times lower than in control conditions, signifying reduced levels of phytoplankton. The cellulose biodegradable alternative increased the abundance of a non-native snail, which the scientists say could lead to further disruptions of the food web. These snails are generally present in polluted waters and have the potential to wipe out and outcompete native species to the UK due to being an invasive species.

The experiments focused on the effects of large amounts of glitter, for example, significant quantities used at festivals. Scientists say that there is less of a concern surrounding the effects of smaller quantities of glitter, for example, those used in make-up. In present times, it is largely presumed that the absence of concerts, festivals and nights out will aid in the reduction of glitter pollution in lakes and rivers. However, a longer break in this chain will be required before a noticeable difference will be able to be recorded. It is recommended that if wearing glitter as a cosmetic or body paint, that it is removed using a wipe and disposed of in general waste rather than washed off with soap and water down the plughole, to reduce larger quantities entering the waterworks and ultimately the ecosystem.


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