The eye-catching sparkle of glitter is not as shiny as it seems. These tiny microplastics are bad news for our environment and glitter plays a role in our planet’s plastic pollution problem, often ending up in oceans, lakes and rivers and ingested by marine life.
While not the worst offender in the growing problem of plastics, the question is, do we really need glitter?
According to a recent article in Scienceline, environmental anthropologist Trisia Farrelly, of New Zealand’s Massey University, the answer is a resounding ‘No’, she says that like many other microplastics, glitter is “avoidable, it’s unnecessary, it’s non-renewable and it’s non-recyclable.”
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that measure less than 5mm. Glitter is made from plastic and aluminium and is bonded with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – the same dense plastic used in most disposable water bottles. Each tiny piece of glitter can take thousands of years to break down.
According to the National Geographic, “Microplastics have been detected in marine organisms from plankton to whales, in commercial seafood, and even in drinking water. Alarmingly, standard water treatment facilities cannot remove all traces of microplastics.”
Once the glitter makes its way into the waterways it can end up in the stomachs of filter feeders like oysters and small fish, accumulating and blocking their digestive tracts. Ocean microplastics can travel up through the food chain and, ultimately, end up in our bodies.
Momentum against glitter grows
With increased understanding about the harmfulness of microplastic pollutants and a greater community focus on sustainability, there’s a global movement to ban glitter, which includes businesses such as festivals, makeup manufacturers and of course, early education services and schools.
The move to ban glitter gained global prominence back in 2017 as Tops Day Nursery, a British early education provider banned the use of plastic craft glitter. In a blog post at the time, centre director Cheryl Hadland commented on the impact not only to the environment but also to the children.
"We hope that our future generation will be more conscientious about their impact on the environment. We welcome support from parents and families, we believe this is a cultural change which will benefit not only us, but our children even more.”
Closer to home, in 2018, Stuff.co.nz featured an article on Warkworth's Learning Adventures, as they introduced a glitter ban as part of a broader move to improve their sustainability practices.
A rainbow of eco-glitter alternatives
The good news is that there’s no need to give up on the rainbow attraction of using sparkles in craft; it’s about finding a natural shiny solution to solve this environmental issue.
Here are some colourful alternatives:
- Coloured sand: Coloured sand lacks the shine and shimmer of glitter but can be used in many of the same ways, and it is cheap and easy to make. To create a brighter look use white aquarium sand from a pet supplier and try out the different textures available.
- Tiny flowers and petals: Bring in a bouquet of bright flowers or setup a scavenger hunt to collect a selection of brightly coloured flora to use in place of plastic glitter. If you use tiny bottles to store the 'glitter' it will be just as appealing as the store-bought stuff.
- Salt glitter: Use food colouring with either table salt or Epsom salts to create your own gorgeous natural glitter.
- Coloured rice: Quick and easy to make, coloured rice has a larger grain than store-bought glitter but is an easy and cheap substitute offering hours of fun sensory play.
- Biodegradable glitter: Biodegradable glitter is more expensive than plastic based alternatives so rationing it out for special occasions makes sense. You may also need to do some research to make sure it is actually eco-friendly as many products have vague ingredients lists and don’t explain how their product is biodegradable.
Learning benefits of a natural glitter solution
In their simple guide to natural glitter solutions, Community Early Learning Australia (CELA) summarises some of the learning benefits to be gained from using non-plastic aternatives to glitter:
- Problem solving: Ask children to look in the garden or recycling boxes for other shiny materials
- Fine motor skills: Use a hole punch, shaped stamper or scissors to cut small particles of coloured paper, leaves, flowers
- Creativity: Glitter is decorative rather than creative, and finding alternatives means using imagination and innovation
- Sustainability: Fish are shiny on the outside, they don’t need to shine inside too! Talk about how we can avoid plastics that can wash into the ocean
- Outdoor connections: Many glitter alternatives are outside – leaves, flowers, sand – head into the garden or take an excursion to the park
- Sensory: Natural options offer smells, textures, taste and sounds.
Of course if you’re not ready to ditch the glitter try reducing your craft usage to a few special occasions, or use smaller amounts by combining it with natural options.
References and further resources:
Enviro schools: A New Zealand based environmental action program where young people are empowered to design and lead sustainability projects in their schools, neighbourhoods and country.
Early Years Alliance: Reducing plastic in nursery settings – stories of success