Glitter is a big part of our lives because we love shimmery objects. Shiny things grab our attention quickly, and we often gravitate towards them. We add it to nail polish, paint, clothes, decorations, and other objects to create a sparkle effect. But how is glitter made?
It especially makes children and young adults happy because of the glitter in craft projects. Even ancient humans used a sparkle pigment to ancient humans, mica, to add shimmer to cave paintings.
This article explores the materials for and process of making glitter. We will discuss the harmful impacts of glitter on the environment and its biodegradable alternatives.
Related Read: Zero Waste Party Ideas, Tips & Decorations.
How is glitter made?
Glitter is a term used to identify flat, reflective objects. Its first production is in New Jersey, now known as the glitter capital of the world. It was an accidental discovery made by Henry Rushmann. He was a machine enthusiast and discovered a process that could cut plastic into tiny individual pieces.
Manufacturers produce glitter with plastic, aluminum, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and other plating materials with high reflective qualities. The plastic used to create glitter is a form of stretched polyester PET film known as biaxially-oriented polyethylene terephthalate (BoPet). There are multiple production processes required to make glitter.
These processes include vacuum plating, coating and coloring, high-temperature curing, slitting and cutting, and powdering and screening.
Manufacturers make glitter by metalizing both sides of plastic. They do this by applying ultra-fine layers of aluminum to both sides of the plastic. Some manufacturers often add a third thin layer of plastic known as styrene acrylate.
Companies diligently follow each process because it is responsible for the glitter's brightness, solvent, and high-temperature resistance. They use aluminum because it reflects light at different angles.
There isn't any difference between the sparkly glitter used for crafts and cosmetics. It is the same material, except manufacturers often cut craft glitter in bigger sizes. The glitter used in makeup and other cosmetics is smaller and cut in circular shapes to avoid cuts on the skin.
Glitter comes in different shapes like hexagons, octagons, stars, and crescent to reflect light. Producers generally avoid cutting them in squares to prevent causing injuries with their sharp edges.
In some cases, companies coat plastic with mica to reflect light. Mica is a group of minerals from non-metallic and sheet silicates. It is a group of natural minerals with a sparkly effect similar to glitter.
How harmful are glitter particles?
As much as we enjoy using glitter, we should evaluate its environmental impact. Scientists identified glitter as a form of microplastic, which is dangerous to the environment.
How is glitter a form of microplastic? Earlier, we explained how glitter is made with plastic sheets, coated with aluminum, and cut into tiny pieces. It fits into the definition of microplastics- small pieces of plastics that are less than five millimeters.
Like bigger plastics, microplastics harm the environment, especially the marine ecosystem. Glitter is not biodegradable, and it is almost impossible to clear most glitter particles from the environment. It adds to pollution in the environment.
When you wash your makeup off your face, the glitter enters wastewater produced in your home and, by extension, various water sources. Glitter in your trash covers other waste in the bin. These waste products are transported to the landfill. Eventually, they wash into rivers and oceans through landfill runoff.
Unfortunately, marine organisms consume these sparkly tiny pieces because they mistake them for food. They need help to differentiate between their natural food and pieces of plastic materials.
Consuming glitter particles can disrupt marine animals’ digestive systems, causing malnutrition and weight loss. Furthermore, glitter accumulates in the food chain, and we consume plastic through the water and seafood we eat2. A study conducted in 2019 revealed that humans consume up to 100,000 bits of plastic daily.
It also acts as a carrier of other environmental pollutants that cause damage to the environment and human health. Consuming microplastics can harm our reproductive and immune systems, leading to cancer and developmental delay.
Although it makes up a small percentage of microplastics in the environment, it still affects most of our surroundings. For instance, it is impossible to recycle products covered with glitter.
Related read: Environmental Impact of Microplastics.
What is modern glitter made of?
Given the harmful tendencies of traditional glitter in the environment, scientists have figured out how to create biodegradable glitter. Biodegradable glitter is from cellulose, the main cell block in plants, fruits, and vegetables.
Despite being plant-based, it maintains its sparkle through the cellulose nanocrystals. These nanocrystals can reflect light to create bright and vivid colors. Researchers claim that plant-based glitter is an excellent replacement for the traditional glitter used to create sparkly makeup, clothing, and crafts.
Using eco-friendly glitter helps reduce the amount of plastic used in the environment, especially in the cosmetic industry. Records show that the European cosmetic industry uses1 about 5,500 tons of plastic yearly.
The researchers optimized the cellulose solution and coating parameters for more control to make it on a roll-to-roll machine. It makes it easier to produce cellulose sheets on an industrial scale,
Then, they grind the sheets into particles. The particles are usually the size of the glitters. Another reason to adopt eco-friendly glitter is because it consumes less energy during production.
Also, it prevents the occurrence of exploitative practices and the use of harmful materials like mica and titanium dioxide. Producers of conventional glitter use other materials to coat plastic sheets instead of aluminum. One of these materials is Mica.
The acquisition of natural mica is not ethically sustainable. Mica mines are in developing countries, and miners rely on vigorous child labor, endangering the lives of multiple children. Also, turning mica rock into pigment particles requires up to 800C. Producing high quantities of the powder is harmful to the planet.
Substitutes For Craft Glitter
Glitter is a primary material in most crafts exercises. However, we should avoid using glitter because it increases environmental pollution and harms freshwater habitats in the long run. If you are not using conventional or bio-based glitter, here are some alternatives you can use:
Salt is an effective alternative to most glitter because of its natural shine. To enhance this crystalized material, simply add food coloring. However, avoid using salt glitter on your skin as it dries moisture. It also damages sensitive skin easily.
Crushed glass also works well as a glitter alternative. You can grind a colored glass bottle into a specific shape, like a rectangle. Its prismatic structure works excellently for mosaic crafts.
Be careful while working with glass because you can easily cut yourself. Wear protective gloves and goggles to protect your skin and eyes.
Sand occurs naturally in our environment. There are different colors you can use for your projects. The only disadvantage is that you can't get sand with a metallic sparkle.
All that glitters isn’t gold. Glitter adds sparkles to objects but harms the planet and its organisms. It is made of plastic, a major pollutant in our surroundings. It is best if we all stopped using conventional glitter and opted for its eco-friendly alternatives.
Dudas, S. E., Juanes, F., Dower, J. F., Davies, H. L., & Covernton, G. A. (2019). Human Consumption of Microplastics. ACS PUBLICATIONS.