Is glitter biodegradable? (Understanding the microplastic problem)

In the brief review we will discuss the biodegradability aspects of glitters. We will answer the question ‘is glitter biodegradable?” with more insights into its material property and what factors decide its biodegradability nature. We will further discuss its recyclability issues and know if it is a type of plastic waste. 

Is glitter biodegradable? 

No, glitters are microplastics and are not biodegradable. Similar to all other plastic materials, glitters are not decomposed or biodegraded by naturally occurring microorganisms. The result is that they end up in our ecosystem in their original form and stay unaltered for thousands of years. 

With their versatile use in crafts, decorations, make ups, and paintings, the use of glitters has become a part of one’s job requirements. Each glitter has their own specific use and cannot be reused for other purposes such as a glitter used for nails cannot be used for makeup as it may cause harm to skin. 

Thus, use of different forms of glitter adds to the imbalance of our environment. To find an alternative solution is the need of the hour and with the availability of biodegradable materials such as cellulose, leaves, and lentils, we can still make our own eco-friendly glitter. 

What makes glitter non-biodegradable? 

The presence of plastic as the main raw material for making glitter is what makes the glitter non-biodegradable. Of the available variety of glitters that we use today many are made up of plastics, metals or even glasses. The metallic coated plastics are cut into tiny pieces to make the sparkling glitters. 

In another version some glitters are coated with aluminum, titanium dioxide, and iron oxide that gives them the shiny and sparkling appearances. Following are a list of different types of glitters available and what they are made up of. 

  • Metallic glitters: Plastic base colored with metallic color to reflect light. 
  • Holographic glitters: Plastic base coated with holographic coating. 
  • Iridescent glitters: Plastic base coated with color that reflects only one type of color. 
  • Gem powders: Made with plastic and aluminum and used for makeup purposes. 

As can be seen from the above list of glitters, plastic is used as the main base material in the making of glitter which is non-biodegradable. As it is a known fact that the naturally available microorganisms are unable to degrade plastics or microplastics, glitter stays around for a long time like the plastic wastes. 

Recyclability issues with glitter 

Glitters being very tiny microplastics are hard to collect once it is spread over the floor. Hence, its recyclability is an issue which needs to be addressed. However, for those who are ardent fans of glitter, there are other ways by which they can use it by giving it zero chance to disperse on the land. 

One way to use it is by decorating permanent objects in your house like a flower vase, show pieces or on your favorite dress. It will be there forever without flying off to the surroundings and you still get your glitter friend with you. 

Another way is to mix glitter with clay and make your favorite figurines, pendants, and ornaments with it. Once the clay is baked at high temperature, the glitter stays there forever, and you get shining DIYs made from clay. 

Is glitter another form of plastic pollution? 

Yes, glitters are tiny microplastics and are a cause of pollution just like any other plastics that end up in landfill or aquatic systems. Being very tiny, it easily escapes the earth’s filtration system and ends up in underground water. 

These microplastics even cause hazardous effects to aquatic animals as fishes engulf these microparticles misunderstanding it for food. The glitters that we use for makeup, party poppers or in confetti are spread over by wind or washed away with water. 

Imagine the tremendous effect needed to collect it, and so, many go for an easy solution that is to let it stay there over a long period which then eventually be taken up by wind or washed away with water. In either case they are just dumped out for nature to take care of it. 

Glitters that end up in rivers or ponds have been shown to cause severe effects to its natural habitat. The number of microscopic algae or pond plants are greatly affected by the accumulation of glitter waste. This in turn deplete the water of its oxygen which adversely affects the water animals. 

As we are aiming for a plastic free environment, it is necessary to deal promptly with all plastic related issues. This can happen only if people start showing a positive approach in controlling the use of plastic material and support the most eco-friendly material. 

Biodegradable alternatives to plastic glitters 

Biodegradable glitters are the one that is made from naturally occurring materials such as plants and would degrade in a short time by the environmental conditions and activity of microorganisms. But are we sure that the products advertised as biodegradable glitters are literally biodegradable? 

While most of these glitters are marketed as biodegradable, the fact is that they still contain some of the plastic materials and metal coating to give the shiny appearance. Some products have bioplastic which gives a feeling that it is biodegradable, however, these bioplastics are also not completely bridgeable until it goes through an industrial composting system which is at present in its dormant state. 

Glitters that are based on cellulose acetate or cellophane use cellulose as their raw materials. Though cellulose is a plant based natural fiber, it is still not biodegradable due to its chemical structure and hence is not better than a plastic based glitter. 

In most cases glitters made from plant-based products are coated with aluminum and plastics to give it a shiny sparkling effect. Thus, these again end up in the plastic-based glitter category.

What are researchers saying? 

Well, the best solution suggested by any agency or authority dealing with plastic waste pollution is to skip glitters entirely. By not buying glitters or any products that use glitters, companies are forced to stop the production of glitters. Though this seems possible but for many glitter lovers it is undoable. 

Let’s see what researchers have found with the contamination of glitters, even the biodegradable ones, in our land and water systems. There are numerous ways these microplastic can affect the natural habitat of our environment. 

In one experiment conducted at Anglia Ruskin University, it was found that the use of biodegradable glitters has caused an increase in the number of New Zealand mud snails in water and this increase was two-fold compared to that caused by plastic glitters. 

What’s stranger is that these snails are an indicator of polluted water as they are better at surviving in polluted waters. Thus, an increase in their number indicates a potential harm to our ecosystem. 

In another research conducted on common duckweed, it was found that presence of both types of glitters has impacted the root length of duckweed and caused a significant drop in the level of chlorophyll. Thus, use of any type of glitter has negatively impacted both animal and plant ecosystems. 

Conclusion 

In this short write up we have covered the particulars related to the question “is glitter biodegradable?” and have explained the main factors that contribute to plastic waste. The effects of glitter overuse and to replace it with other alternatives have also been discussed here. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQs): “Is glitter biodegradable?” 

How long does it take for glitter to decompose? 

Glitters made of plastics take much longer time to decompose similar to other plastic products. They remain on the earth for millions of years and there is no natural means by which these can be degraded and decomposed. However, biodegradable glitters are made up of mostly cellulosic material. 

Though they are not as harmful as the plastic glitter, they still pose harm to our environment as its making utilizes some amount of plastic materials. 

Is glitter harmful to the environment? 

Yes, glitters are harmful to our environment as they are microplastics that are not biodegraded by any organisms or enzymes. They end up in our land and aquatic system affecting millions of animals and birds. 

These microplastics contain a range of chemicals and toxins and consumption of these can cause detrimental effects to our body. Some of these microplastic have carcinogenic properties as well. 

How do you make biodegradable glitters? 

Most of the biodegradable glitters are made from cellulosic material found in plant fibers. Though they are plant based products. Cellulose is still non-biodegradable. In some cases, they are made with modified cellulose obtained from eucalyptus trees which are further coated with aluminum and plastic to give shiny sparking to the glitters. 

Why are biodegradable glitters bad? 

Though the name suggests that the glitter is biodegradable, it still contains aluminum and plastic that gives it a shiny appearance. Many biodegradable glitters are made from cellulose as the base material. 

However, these glitters are also non-biodegradable as cellulose is very durable owing to its chemical structure. Studies have shown that the negative effects from both biodegradable and plastic based glitters are the same. 

What can be used instead of glitter? 

There are many eco-friendly materials that can be used instead of glitters. Some of them include crushed glass that is mainly used to give sparkling effect to jewelry or ornament objects. 

Crushed glass is safe to use, and it is generally made from widely available resource such as sand limestone and ashes. Seed beads and microbeads are also made from crushed glasses and give a luxurious sparkling effect. 

What is natural glitter made of? 

Homemade glitters are the best source of glitters that one can make with the easily available materials. Colored rock salt or even table salt can be coated with food coloring to be used as a natural glitter. Some companies are making Bioglitters which are 100% plastic free and decompose like a regular organic material.

References: 

Dannielle Senga Green, Megan Jefferson, Bas Boots, Leon Stone, All that glitters is litter? Ecological impacts of conventional versus biodegradable glitter in a freshwater habitat, Journal of Hazardous Materials. 2021. 402. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhazmat.2020.124070

Biodegradable glitter is no better for the environment, say scientist. Cosmetics Business October 2020. https://cosmeticsbusiness.com/news/article_page/Biodegradable_glitter_is_no_better_for_the_environment_say_scientists/170911 

Meral Yurtsever., Tiny, shiny, and colorful microplastics: Are regular glitters a significant source of microplastics?, Marine Pollution Bulletin. 2019. 149 (678-682) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2019.07.009.

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