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article imageEssential Science: Time to ban glitter? A microplastic risk

By Tim Sandle     Apr 1, 2019 in Science
Bad news for lovers of the glam look and craft enthusiasts, especially for those who care about the environment. Glitter is a micro-plastic and therefore one that you should stop using. There have even been calls for glitter to be banned, as we find out.
Glitter is used by people who like to engage in arts and crafts, making collages and cards, and also as a body adornment. The problem is, glitter is now known to be a cause of microplastic pollution – no different to some cosmetics and additives to washing powders. Glitter is as prone to be washed down the drain as other plastic based substances.
Microplastics refers to the microscopic plastic debris that has littered the ocean, infiltrated aquatic food chains, and has entered into some human food and water supplies. Microplastics are not a specific kind of plastic; the term applies to any kind of plastic fragment that is less than five millimeters in length (as defined by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).
Microplastics include microfibers from clothing, microbeads, and plastic pellets, as well as those particles created by the degradation of larger plastic products once they enter the environment. It is estimated that there are between 15 and 51 trillion individual pieces of microplastic in the world’s oceans.
To assess the risk and prevalence of microplastics, standardized field methods for collecting sediment, sand, and surface-water microplastic samples have been developed and these are used by marine experts to assess the level of risk in a given region.
A recent study from the journal Geochemical Perspectives finds that microplastics have been detected at the deepest point of the ocean, Challenger Deep, in the western Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench. See: “Microplastics contaminate the deepest part of the world’s ocean.”
The world’s problem with microplastics began along time ago, but it is steadily got worse. Based on data supplied by the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic microbeads first appeared in personal care products about fifty years ago, with plastics increasingly replacing natural ingredients. The implications of this increased use is that each year, we produce around 400 million tons of plastic worldwide. A significant amount of this plastic ends up in the environment as litter (especially the oceans); and most types of plastic take several hundred years to completely degrade.
What is glitter?
Glitter is a general term used to describe an array of small, reflective particles that come in a variety of shapes and colors. This assortment of particles reflect light at different angles, causing the surface, which creates the sparkle or shimmering effect. Many years ago, glitter was made from stones like malachite, and mica, or from insects or glass. These days glitter is manufactured from plastic and is rarely recycled.
Time to ban glitter?
Many scientists are keen to ban glitter. According to Dr Trisia Farrelly, an environmental anthropologist at Massey University, speaking with The Independent: “I think all glitter should be banned, because it’s microplastic.” This succinct statement centers on an easy-fix in the race to minimize the impact that microplastics are having on the oceans.
Globally plastics production has surged from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014...
Globally plastics production has surged from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014 and is expected to double in 20 years as demand grows, according to "The New Plastics Economy" report
, Hong Kong Cleanup/AFP
Another researcher, Professor Richard Thompson tells the same website: “I was quite concerned when somebody bought my daughters some shower gel that had glitter particles in it. That stuff is going to escape down the plughole and potentially enter the environment.”
His concern is that most glitter is composed of aluminium and a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, which is the most common thermoplastic polymer resin of the polyester family.
Restrictions on the use of glitter
Due to concerns about glitter, in August 2018 61 British music festivals committed to ban its attendees from wearing glitter. Into 2019, environmental campaigners have stepped up pressure in urging retailers to stop selling products containing glitter altogether.
The mission: To become the world s most environmentally friendly outdoor musical event.
The mission: To become the world's most environmentally friendly outdoor musical event.
This has culminated with the online pressure group 38 Degrees launching a petition calling for an urgent ban on glitter. In the U.K., one major supermarket – Waitrose – has agreed to stop selling glitter products.
Essential Science
In July the Dutch government gave the green light to a wide-ranging experiment to allow up to 10 mun...
In July the Dutch government gave the green light to a wide-ranging experiment to allow up to 10 municipalities around the country to legally grow cannabis
Evert Elzinga, ANP/AFP
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we weighed in on the debate about the impact of cannabis on the brain, where studies offer different evidence and contrasting perspectives.
The week before, we looked at new technology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, based on RFID tags, which can assist robots to gain greater precision for moving objects and also for increasing the speed of responses
More about Glitter, Plastic, microsplastic, Contamination, Oceans
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