The Glitter End

By Tess Cimino

From the Super Bowl to Mardi Gras, glitter has always been a means of celebration. Whether it’s through glitter bombs, edible glitter pills, or glitter gel (also known as Unicorn Snot), glitter symbolizes joy and hope. People ages five to 50 are enchanted in the magic it brings, making their days brighter and dreams bigger. Even P!nk agrees that all you need to do be empowered is throw a “fist-full of glitter in the air, look fear in the face and say you just don’t care.” David Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, historically started this growing trend. Now, Ke$ha keeps that same gleaming tradition alive, claiming to spend a few thousand dollars a month on glitter. Identities are built off of wearing and using glitter, but when the festivities conclude, “there’s glitter on the floor after the party. Girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby.”

The world has started to learn about micro-plastics, the small pieces of plastic waste created by the disposal of everyday consumer products. The general public is beginning to learn about the dangers of  micro-beads found in thousands of tubes of toothpastes, facial cleansers, scrubs, body washes and makeup. And most people know a little about microfibers, the thin synthetic fibers in clothing that shed into the water during each wash. What about glitter? Chances are, most people have never even considered it having a negative connotation. This is because there is missing data on glitter, meaning that nobody is thinking about it. However, glitter is a plastic-based product made from metalized polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that pollutes the ocean. Every time people wash off their makeup down the drain, the plastic in that glitter kills 100,000 fish, oysters, birds, and marine creatures each year, starving them as they innocently believe these sparkling specks are food. Glitter might even be smaller than micro-plastics, categorized as nano plastics. These particles are all in the same family, but glitter is seen as the playful puppy with big brown eyes, never the villain.

Society needs to begin viewing plastic as ‘dirty,’ a source of carbon emissions and ocean pollution, as opposed to an invisible convenience
— Dr. Pinar Yoldas

Glitter gets a free pass in our minds, while micro-plastics, fibers and beads do not. This is understandable when 800 trillion micro-beads are washed away daily, and 10,000 of those are from the plastic particles in an “exfoliating” face wash used during daily showers. Eight million tons of micro-plastics end up in the ocean each year. That is the same weight as 530,000 blue whales. Most of those water samples trace the debris back to microfibers. As only nine percent of plastics are recycled each year, this is an inescapable and pressing issue that can only be fixed by reducing consumption habits.

Photo by  BioGlitz

Photo by BioGlitz

Marine plastic the size of a dime is 90 percent of the problem, found from the sea ice in Antarctica to the North Shore of Hawaii. “One plastic bottle eventually disintegrates into many tiny pieces that can be eaten by anything,” explained Jennifer Brandon, a micro-plastic researcher, “the real problem in the ocean is happening at a very small scale.” Tiny glitter particles should be the biggest concern as they interact with the food chain the most. When you throw something away where does it really go? There is no “away.” Just because people don’t see the things they are disposing of, piled high in their day-to-day life, doesn’t mean they are gone. They are filling up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a polluted smog soup accumulated from man-made trash, spreading thousands of miles in the ocean.

Recently, over 10 pilot and sperm whales in Asia have been fighting for their lives, struggling to breathe and swim. Accidentally, they have eaten up to 20 pounds of plastic debris. A few months ago, a pilot whale in Thailand was rescued by deployed buoys to help it stay afloat. During the rescue, the whale threw up seven plastic shopping bags. All of that plastic was clogging its digestion track from the real nutritional diet it so desperately needed. Thousands of other animals are experiencing this same thing. Whale and Dolphin Conservation director, Regina Asmutis-Silvia pleads, “We have no idea how many animals aren’t showing up on a beach; this is one pilot whale, this doesn’t consider other species. It’s symbolic at best, but it’s symbolic of an incredibly significant problem.” In addition, Dr. Amaral-Zettler, a senior scientist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research explains how plastic waste can “also serve as a transport mechanism for invasive species. Even on a microscopic level, marine microbes often live on plastic debris in a world referred to as the ‘plastisphere’.”

Glitter is on the forefront of the plastic pollution epidemic as it continues to hide under the radar. Look inside an oyster from that trendy seafood restaurant in New York City, and you may not see a pile of plastic and glitter pouring out, but there is a good chance you are ingesting these particles. Fish and mussels filled with plastic bottle caps, straws and glitter in their gut is a gruesome reality of where our trash is going out into the depths of the ocean and then back onto our plates, even if it’s invisible. It’s like anything harmful in this world: if we do not see it, it is easy to choose to ignore; therefore, it might be too late before people realize the harm glitter is causing.

In December of 2018, the New York Times published an article about what glitter is and how it is made. Caity Weaver, the Times writer on this case, took a trip to one of the most prominent glitter factories in New Jersey, Glitterex. In an interview with Lauren Dyer, a manager at Glitterex, Weaver inquires about what the glitter industry’s biggest market is and she quickly hashes back, “No, I absolutely know that I can’t.” Even though she obviously knows. Dyer states that Weaver would never guess it and when asked off the record if she could say, she still wouldn’t budge because the company doesn’t want people to know it’s glitter. This mysterious company is doing just that as consumers have no idea what it is or how to find out. At first glance, people would not know it is glitter, but they would be able to “see something.” That’s pretty scary if it’s something toxic that people are using, eating, or putting on every day without knowing. Twitter and Reddit users have gone crazy piecing together clues on the back of ingredient listings, words in the article, and answers from their smartest family members. In my personal opinion, I believe top brands of toothpaste could be using glitter in their products to give off the shiny and swirling texture. People would panic after realizing they are directly consuming polyethylene, A.K.A plastic, the main ingredient found in Aquafresh, Colgate, Crest, Oral B, and Sensodyne.

The glitter industry poses many environmental and ethical downfalls. The plastic pieces underneath the shine would be nothing but plastic if mica did not exist. Mica is a natural rock mineral made into thin sparkling sheets. Plastic and mica are the ultimate partners in crime. Over 2,000 10-year-old-children hammer flakes of mica off the mountainsides in the hillside backwoods of Jharkhand and Bihar, India to produce glitter. At the same time, 12-year-old girls stumble carrying up to 50 pounds worth of the shimmering rocks to the top of the mountain to be sorted. They have it easy compared to their siblings working in the mines the size of a rat hole, coming out after a 13-hour workday coughing profusely with sparkles sticking to their cheeks. Ninety percent of what is being done there is illegal, although 25 percent of the world’s production still comes from this region. Large, multinational retailers, L’Oréal and Estée Lauder, continue to supply their glimmering beauty products with mica sourced from this impoverished area, employing child labor. The ironic issue is that “one girl had to crawl into a dangerous mine with an ax to dig out the sparkles for another girl halfway around the world” (Slavery Footprint). If people are solely attracted to the shine, there is another method scientists have created called synthetic fluorphlogopite, also known as synthetic mica, that gives off the same effect. It is a human rights approved and plastic-free solution.

Photo by  BioGlitz

Photo by BioGlitz

There are an innate connection and attachment people have to their precious sparkles. Giving up glitter means losing a source of happiness for individuals. Suffering asks to be relieved by bright and shining things. Glitter is the band-aid used through bleak and turbulent periods. Psychologically, glitter continues to be a trend because "sparkles help us rise above the mundane and bring us into the realms of dreams," Susan Miller, a popular astrologist discloses. Individuals surround themselves with glitter to forget about their dark problems and gloomy fears; thus, consumption is influenced by feelings of anxiety, depression, economic turmoil, and political unrest. Dr. Pinar Yoldas voices, “Society needs to begin viewing plastic as ‘dirty,’ a source of carbon emissions and ocean pollution, as opposed to an invisible convenience.” Glitter is not associated with being a threat to the environment because of its aesthetically pleasing shine, blinding people to the harsh reality that in the past five years, 10 million pounds of glitter were purchased in the United States alone. 5,000 million more tons of plastic added to the already contaminated salt water body on top of the present eight million. People have consumed enough glitter to weigh down one garbage truck per minute in a day.

People can create sparkle from natural alternatives such as glass, metal, salt, sugar, sunlight, or even crushed-up dung beetles, Cleopatra’s personal favorite. When walking along any beach on a sunny day, one is bound to notice the small specks of bronze glimmering between his or her toes in the sand. Even though it looks like a first-grader was working on his science fair poster on the solar system, plastering his board with gold glitter, it is a bright optical illusion. The chemical constituents in salt water are very similar to the plasma in human blood. A professor from Cornell Medical College describes, “Blood can be thought of as a private ocean, a recapitulation of what life was like for all the years we spent drifting as microscopic, single-celled organisms, taking up nutrients from seawater and then eliminating waste products back into seawater.” A mixture of water, salt, and other ions create a balanced mixture of minerals. That iron washes up from the waves into the sands, heating up from the sun to give off a sparkling pattern.

Today, there are also many companies making biodegradable, eco-friendly glitter. For example, BioGlitz values shining responsibly, making glitter from plants. Compostable and made from renewably sourced ingredients, their formula “connects us all through shine, consideration, and respect for nature.” Another brand, EcoStardust, designs bio glitter from the cellulose on eucalyptus trees, which is then dyed, painted, and put in a cutting machine to produce hexagonal shapes. Biodegradable glitter has fewer chemicals than petroleum-based beauty, craft, and fashion items. Replacing PET with plant-based materials greatly reduces people’s environmental footprint.

I used to be seduced by glitter but had an awakening after seeing how destructive it is to the environment, animals and people. Are sparkles on our cheeks worth having an ocean without whales?  There is a way to be happy without harm that stretches beyond thinking of a physical product. In the future, we will have digital glitter: face filters on our Instagram stories sparkling for the world to see. We will throw a fist full of pixels in the air instead of pixie dust. It will be a virtual glitter reality consisting of abstract contortions of light, drones, and holograms. In the next few years, people will start to wonder why glitter was made in the first place when technology gives off the same, if not better, effect. But, until we get there, it seems imperative to start educating the public about the dangers of glitter and begin encouraging them to find an alternative, environmentally friendly, sparkly options.