What Is Glitter? Environmental Impact and Sustainable Alternatives

Almost anything that sparkles likely contains plastic-based glitter.
Close Up Of Scattered Pink Glitter With Bottle On Table - stock photo
Pernilla Parfitt / EyeEm / Getty Images
“All that glitters is not gold,” wrote William Shakespeare. And how prescient he was: Glitter today is a mix of plastic and aluminum.

These sticky, scintillating specks appear in wrapping paper, holiday decorations, greeting cards, craft projects, and even personal cosmetics. Almost anything that sparkles likely contains plastic-based glitter. Since glitter particles are so small, they’re considered microplastics♓: a major source of ocean, air, and soil pollution. 

Read on to learn what gives glitter its glow, the ways glitter contributes to environmental damage, and which safer-for-the-planet alternatives are available for purchase.

What Is Glitter?

For centuries, the word glitter referred to the eye-catching shimmer of a substance like water, glass, or precious metal. Since the 1930s, however, the term has applied to a single flat, reflective sparkle and a collection of hundreds or even thousands of tiny, flashy plastic manufactured primarily in New Jersey, arguably the glitter capital of the world.

Made from sheets of both polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET)—the same plastic found in water bottles—the plastic is metalized on both sides by applying ultrafine layers of aluminum that give the glitter its color and bling factor. Many types of glitter have a third thin layer of styrene acrylate, another plastic. Still, proprietary formulas keep the details about what exactly goes into glitter confined to the walls of glitter factories in the Garden State. The glitter is then punched out of the sheets into small, primarily hexagonally-shaped pointy bits. 

Glittery makeup palette
Glitter is commonly included is popular makeup products. Patricia Marroquin / Getty Images

Because of its small size and tendency to generate a great deal of static cling, glitter is notoriously tricky to clean up. Glitter not wholly removed from a crime scene has even served as evidence in a murder conviction.🌺 Because of its persistent nature, it’s next to impossible to get rid of the sparkly stuff in our homes and the surrounding environments. And because these microplastics can take hundreds of years to decompose, all the glitter ever made still exists in its original form.

The Environmental Impact of Glitter 

The persistent nature of glitter explains its role in plastic pollution. Thanks to its small-from-the-get-go size, most glitter does not continue to break down, remaining intact from the cradle to the grave.

The majority of glitter eventually winds up in the ocean via the wastewater generated in our homes (including any glitter that might have been washed down your sink or tub) and from landfill run-off. Marine organisms like fish then eat the small plastic pieces because they can’t distinguish the tiny synthetic bits from their natural food supply, making microplastic one of the world’s most prolific and intractable pollutants.

As these plastics bioaccumulate in the food chain, humans end up consuming them to the tune of about a credit card’s worth of plastic every week, mostly through the water we drink and the seafood we eat.

As the most abundant form of solid waste across the globe, petroleum-based microplastics threaten the ecological and biological well-being of aquatic ecosystems, damaging rivers, seas, and oceans alike. Every year, over 1000 metric tons of microplastic fall out of the sky, either through wind or rain, onto protected lands in the western United States.🐻 Studies have even found microplastics in the most remote places in the nation, including national parks and other wildlife areas.

But glitter alone is not responsible for the majority of microplastic pollution. The overwhelming majority comes from other plastic items like single-use plastic packaging, straws, flatware, and even synthetic fibers from our clothing that flow into water supplies with every wash. While it’s difficult to track these nanoparticles, researchers in a 2019 study used techniques borrowed from forensic science to track glitter’s sparkly footprint around the globe. They concluded that glitter might play a more significant role in microplastic pollution than previously thought, especially regarding soil health.

Sustainable Alternatives to Plastic-Based Glitter

The best way consumers can reduce their exposure and contribution to microplastic pollution is to abstain from glitter and other single-use plastics. If the thought of giving up glitter altogether seems untenable, consider newly created biodegradable glitters. These teensy flecks use plant-based fibers, made using modified regenerated cellulose often sourced from eucalyptus trees, as an alternative to plastic sheets. Other biodegradable materials include mica (a naturally occurring silicate mineral) and synthetic mica.

Like traditional plastic-based glitter, the cellulose is metalized with a thin layer of aluminum or other mineral pigments that give the glitter its twinkle and hue. Unfortunately, some biodegradable glitter still contains a thin layer of styrene acrylate. A study from early 2021, cleverly titled “All that glitters is litter?”, showed that even these biodegradable versions can affect marine environments.

Still, the future of glitter looks bright. In late 2021, researchers from Cambridge University developed a completely sustainable, plastic-free, and biodegradable glitter that can be produced on an industrial scale, paving the way for a more sustainable sparkle.🎶 The U.K. company touts itself as the world’s only certified freshwater biodegradable glitter brand. And the global leader in glitter production, Meadowbrook Inventions, now sells . This industry giant’s move toward a future free from microplastic pollution proves there’s a glimmer of hope for the glitter of tomorrow to be as shiny as ever without the environmental damage.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is glitter made from?
    The vast majority of glitter produced today comes from a blend of plastic and aluminum, although plant-based biodegradable versions are growing in popularity.
  • Is glitter toxic to humans?

    As a microplastic, glitter contributes to plastic pollution, but research into its role in human health is still emerging. Early evidence suggests that ingesting microplastics like glitter could prompt stress and immune responses as well as cause developmental and reproductive toxicity.

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