Recently at Little House, Big Art, a crafting studio in Pittsburgh’s Spring Hill neighborhood, 8-year-old Imogen Nowak looks for just the right beads. She’s making a necklace, and while she’s not using any glitter today, it’s a favorite. “I add glitter to things that I’m making or things that I love,” she says. “It adds a little sparkle to life.”
Owner Elizabeth Bashur says she goes through a lot of it. “About 100 percent of the people who come in find some way to use glitter,” Bashur says. So when Bashur saw some recent headlines calling glitter an environmental hazard — well, it was hard. “We’re kind of heartbroken,” she admits.
In November, an article in the UK’s Independent, and then other publications, pointed to the problem with glitter, and calls from some scientists to ban it. Sherri Mason is a chemist at the State University of New York at Fredonia. She studies plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. She says when you wash your hands or clothes to get rid of glitter, it ends up in lakes, rivers and oceans. “The vast majority of plastics that we find in the environment are these small pieces of plastic that are considered microplastics,” she says. “The majority of glitter…it’s a microplastic.”
Microplastics are technically 5 millimeters in diameter or smaller. Mason says most are more like a millimeter. They can be manufactured that way, like most glitter on the market, or might start out as a macro plastic, like a bottle of water that’s been ground down by the elements. Researchers estimate that 10,000 metric tons of plastic debris enter the Great Lakes every year.
Until recently there were microplastics called microbeads in facial scrubs and toothpaste. Mason’s discovery of tiny plastics in Lake Erie helped lead to federal legislation. The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 banned their use in some consumer products. And for good reason. “Plastics, by their nature, are very good at absorbing pollutants from the external environment onto their surface,” Mason says. “Things like polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons–things that are known to be carcinogens, mutagens, endocrine disruptors.”
Mason says fish eat the tiny pieces of plastic, and chemicals can be passed through their flesh to us. The plastic itself may even break into smaller pieces that lodge into the meat we eat.
And while facial washes are no longer made with microplastics in the US, glitter is still pretty common in makeup.
Of course there’s been some backlash over this call to end glitter as we know it. Some say our dependence on disposable items like plastic bags is the bigger issue. Mason sees both sides.
“Glitter is not the biggest piece of the pie,” she says. “But it’s an easy one to get rid of.”
If that bums you out, Mason suggests we could use less glitter. Or switch to a sustainable, biodegradable brand. Elizabeth Bashur at Little House, Big Art found one made in Denmark. It costs more, but she says she is going to make the switch. “And then it’s compostable,” she says. “So we’ll have glitter in our community garden.”
Or you could use something other than glitter to make holiday crafts festive.
At Apoidea Apiary’s holiday open house in Shaler, kids learn to make seed bombs–this time, it’s without glitter.
Beekeeper Christina Joy Neumann admits to having a little bit of a glitter addiction. She’s used it to decorate the seed bombs in the past. They’re a mixture of soil, native seeds and water, rolled into balls and dried. You can toss the seed bombs onto the edge of a yard or hillside, or even along the side of a road now to create habitat for bees and other pollinators later.
Basically, the seed bombs look like balls of dirt. Hence the glitter. “We wanted to make them look cute, so they’d be fun for Christmas or even a New Year’s Eve toss,” Neumann says.
So with a friend, Roxanne Swann from the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, she came up with the idea of rolling the finished seed bombs in small, white pieces of perlite. Perlite is a volcanic glass that’s not sharp and can help with soil drainage. So now the seed bombs look like little snowballs.