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Lindsey Wixon glitter look by Isamaya

Guilt-free glitter: Eco alternatives that shine without hurting the planet

Tips on how you can sparkle sustainably this party season

Christmas, New Year’s, arts and crafts projects, or your average Friday night are all good reasons to slap on some glitter. The only problem is that glitter is a microplastic, commonly made of plastic sheets shredded into pieces smaller than 5mm (hence the term ‘micro’). When you wash the fun and sparkly microplastic down the sink, it ends up in sewage, polluting the sea and all the living organisms in it, and we end up ingesting it as well. 

If you’ve ever applied it to your face/hair/body, you’ve probably found little bits of glitter on your clothes, bed sheets, and bathroom floor for days afterwards. But it’s nearly impossible to get rid of it once it’s in the environment. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) estimates that up to 60,000 tonnes of microplastics, that are intentionally added to products, end up in the environment every year as ‘Plastic Soup’. Plastic items can take up to 400 years to break down.

One campaign hoping to clean up our glitter-filled oceans is Beat the Microbead – established in 2012 with the aim to diminish (and eventually banish) microbeads and microplastics in all products, including beauty, cosmetics and personal care. A great feat, considering there are more than 500 microplastic ingredients, often hidden away. The campaign has compiled a list of the common aggressors and Beat the Microbead’s ‘Zero Plastic Inside’ certification can help to establish a company’s ethos and credentials. Some cosmetic brands already certified as ‘Zero Plastic’ include Neal’s Yard Remedies, Lush and Dr. Hauschka. Another certification to look out for is the ‘OK biodegradable Water Marine or Soil’ awarded by TÜV Austria, which means the certified product will be able to naturally break down when in contact with freshwater (lakes, rivers), sea or soil. Could biodegradable glitter therefore be the answer?

Cosmetic manufacturer and supplier, Ronald Britton Ltd launched the world’s first environmentally-friendly cosmetic glitter, Bioglitter, in 2014 after four years in development. Two years later, it received the TÜV certification of high biodegrading of their glitters and now offer two lines, one that is 100 per cent biodegradable (‘PURE’) and another that’s 92 per cent biodegradable (‘SPARKLE’), but the brand is working to make both lines completely natural. Bioglitter PURE is ‘OK Biodegradable WATER’ certified and a verified microplastic free glitter, “a world first” according to Stephen Cotton, commercial director of Ronald Britton Ltd.

“We make the Bioglitter PURE product by replacing the plastic film with a plant-based film instead, which is made from a special form of cellulose unique to Bioglitter, sourced from responsibly managed and certified plantations,” Cotton explains. “It’s then coated with a special natural coating, to give it a sparkly and iridescent effect. Once it enters the natural environment it will decompose similar to a leaf, to leave no trace.”

The speed at which Bioglitter biodegrades depends on local environmental factors, such as heat, moisture, and concentration of microbes and ranges. Bioglitter PURE has been tested to  biodegrade by 92 per cent in 28 days.“There are fewer microorganisms in fresh water, so it’s a more challenging environment to achieve biodegradability, but this was our target. We wanted a product that could biodegrade in any environment and could be used in wash-off cosmetics, because if it does end up going down the drain, it will still decompose,” Cotton says.

“Sophie Awdry, who founded Eco Glitter Fun, has three tips on how to select eco-friendly glitters. By shape (eco glitter only comes in a hexagon shapes, no stars or hearts), by colour (holographic or iridescent colours don’t exist yet), and by touch (it’s a lot softer than plastic which you can really feel)”

Sophie Awdry, who founded Eco Glitter Fun with her friend Noemi Lamanna, has three tips on how to select eco-friendly glitters. By shape (eco glitter only comes in a hexagon shapes, no stars or hearts), by colour (holographic or iridescent colours don’t exist yet), and by touch (it’s a lot softer than plastic which you can really feel). Unlike other brands, Eco Glitter Fun’s packaging is completely recyclable, as their glitter comes in glass bottles with aluminium caps, and 10 per cent of its profits are donated to Plastic Oceans

But Beat the Microbead reports that even biodegradable glitters can contain eight per cent plastic and the beauty industry has been bombarded with ‘greenwashing’ claims as of late. “There are a few companies claiming their glitter is biodegradable, when it’s actually compostable (with ingredients such as polylactic acid – PLA, cellulose acetate or cellophane),” explains Awdry. “This makes it the same as plastic, as no glitter is ever going to be put in the compost.” Cotton notes that it’s important to look at the names the companies use, for example ‘cellulose acetate’ or ‘cellophane’ is no better than plastic. “We are seeing unsuspecting customers buying glitter which they think is eco-friendly when it’s often not much better than plastic glitter. Stricter regulation in the market would be good to see and would really help drive change in the sector,” he says. 

Glitter products may be environmentally sound but they may ethically problematic if they contain mica. Mica is a pigment that gives products shimmer, but it’s very hard to guarantee it’s ethically sourced and is often mined by children in questionable circumstances. Ethical companies, like Lush, that are very focused on sustainable, ethical, and plastic-free or recyclable products, uses synthetic mica in its shimmer or glitter products.

If you have bought glitter in the past that’s not eco-friendly, there are ways to get rid of it without releasing it into the environment. Awdry suggests using your existing glitter for arts and crafts: “A friend of mine makes glittering coasters with the glitter trapped in the resin,” she says. Cotton offers an alternative: “You can’t actually recycle glitter, so I suggest upcycling it in some way. Ecostardust has a plastic amnesty service, where it takes your unwanted plastic glitter and upcycles it responsibly.”  

So what’s the next step? Awdry wishes for more shapes and holographic finishes to make applying glitter even more creative and fun. “It would be fantastic to have the glitters degrade even quicker, but still be a stable product while you wear them,” she adds. Bioglitter is certainly a promising company with big plans – it wants to remove the 3 per cent of plastic still in its Bioglitter SPARKLE, which is sparklier than PURE. “We are now investing in research and development to remove the last of the plastic so that product can reach full certification, which we expect to achieve soon,” Cotton says. What’s clear is that progress is being made and there is much more development and experimentation ahead for eco-friendly glitter.