We must have heard this proverb a zillion times that ‘All that glitters is not gold’; and we know this in the context of unreliability of something’s attractive external appearance. On the other hand, this proverb can be considered true in environmental context as well. This is because glitter is a microplastic, which is mostly made of aluminum and polyethylene terephthalate or PET (a thermoplastic polymer).

By Laraib Ehtasham (Environmentalist, creative writer and academic writer)

In general, microplastic pollution is one of the burning environmental issues of today’s era. According to a famous saying ‘There is more microplastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way’; which seems to be true. On the whole, it is estimated that human beings ingest about 5 grams of microplatics on weekly basis. Plus, they have been also found in the core samples taken from the Arctic ice; which indicates that how these tiny particles remain in our environment for very long periods of time. In addition to this, various toxic organic and inorganic chemicals also adhere to microplastics. This ends up in the bioaccumulation of these toxic substances in the food chains and marine ecosystem.

Furthermore, the sparkly, shiny and colorful microplastics (i.e. glitters) are used in cosmetics, decorative objects, clothing, industrial paints and art/craft supplies. Unfortunately, despite of its charming appearance, glitter has harmful impacts on environment and human health. A factor that contributes even more in its eco-unfriendly nature is that it is usually used in single-use items (e.g. greeting cards). Historically, the mica based glitter was being used since 40,000 B.C by Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Chinese Civilizations. However, the modern glitter was created in 1934, when Henry Ruschmann (an American farmer) began to cut mylar and plastic sheets into very small pieces.

First of all, due to being made out of PET, glitter does not easily break down or degrade; and it remains in the environment for prolonged duration (up to 400 years approximately). Secondly, this attribute of being non-biodegradable makes it havoc for the oceans and marine organisms, as it enters oceans via run-off from landfill sites and wastewater (including residential and commercial wastewater). As glitters are usually of a few millimeters (mostly less than 5 mm) in size, so they are easily consumable for small marine organisms which mistakenly consider them food particles; and end up in blocking their digestive tract and causing appetite-loss. Moreover, when PET in glitter breaks downs, it releases harmful chemicals which adversely impact the animals. As far as human health is concerned, the most prominent suspected impact of glitters (and microplastics in general) is endocrine or hormonal disruptions. Although the health disturbances caused by them are not evident on major grounds, yet it is suspected that if they are ingested or inhaled in much smaller size, they can pass into bloodstream and can cause various health issues.

In a nutshell, even though the mesmerizing glitter appears to be very tiny and naive, yet it adds up a lot to the microplastic pollution. Therefore, the best way possible to prevent further damages caused by glitter is to prevent adding it into various products. Along with this, replacing the conventional glitter with biodegradable glitter can also be a very effective practice adopted by industries. Such biodegradable glitter is made of plant materials (i.e. cellulose). The question is that the oceans are already the victims of 800 tones plastic on annual basis, so why should we burden them even more? Therefore, even though these practices of preventing and reducing the usage of glitter appear to be a meager try for, yet they will somehow aligned with the global effort and aim of beating plastic pollution.