Why glitter has lost its sparkle
It’s sparkly, fun and kinda irresistible. It adds a touch of magic to objects, and makes things seem special. Yet in the UK many childcare centres have removed glitter from their art supplies, and some Australian schools are following their lead. So why should we, as parents, think twice before using glitter with our own children?
Because it turns out that glitter is terrible for the environment.
The glitter commonly used in arts and crafts is comprised of tiny weeny plastic particles. These tiny shiny flecks are made of aluminum and PET, a plastic which does not decompose and persists for many decades in the environment.
What makes glitter extra tricky to manage is its diminutive size. Measuring less than five millimetres in length, glitter is actually classified as a ‘microplastic’. You may have heard this term before - scientists are increasingly reporting that tiny microplastics are causing big pollution problems throughout the environment.
Glitter can’t be separated or recycled, and a little bit goes a very long way! We’ve probably all had the experience of bringing home glittery kids’ craft projects that leave trails of sparkle behind them. Yes indeed, you can still find those darn stubborn sparkly specs throughout the car for weeks afterwards.
I remember attending a child’s birthday party once where a ‘fairy’ was employed to host the games. She coordinated the young guests to form a ring around a circular parachute, hold its edges and move it up and down in waves. Onto this undulating surface she poured handfuls of glitter to create dramatic clouds of sparkle. I cringed then (fearing for kids’ eyes and noses) but cringe even now thinking about all that glittery litter scattering onto the floor and throughout the room.
When used in craft projects that pesky glitter sticks to children's hands and then goes down the sink into the water system. It sticks to their clothes which then go into washing machines and out into the water system.
When glitter is swept up or disposed of it eventually becomes landfill or washes into drains. It’s small enough to pass unfiltered through sewage treatment systems into rivers and, eventually, the ocean where it can be consumed by plankton, fish, and birds. Some reports say that one third of the world’s marine life carries microplastics.
In fact, glitter's environmental effects are severe enough that many scientists have proposed a ban of the loose, sparkly, harmful substance. Some British childcare providers have already made the decision to ban glitter in their centres, and The Guardian reported in March this year that supermarkets in the UK are considering doing the same.
There are many reports online covering this topic. “Scientists have found microplastics in 114 aquatic species, and more than half of those end up on our dinner plates. Now they are trying to determine what that means for human health.”
Recently I’ve noticed some sparkly bathbombs for sale that claim to use biodegradable glitter: “plastic-free glitters are made with mica and minerals, seaweed and starch”. It seems that industry is working to develop eco-friendly alternatives to plastic glitter. In your home crafting consider using salt coloured with food dye.
The facts are in – now it’s up to us, as parents, to be good role models and mindful of the effects of materials that we use with our children.
Update: As I type this story, ABC 774 radio news tells me that the Worldwide Fund for Nature reported today that on average we’re ingesting 5 grams (that’s a teaspoon) of microplastics each week - about the size of a credit card! This issue will not go away anytime soon, folks.