New Year's Eve parties, or at least the ones I've been to, usually look like the glitter aisle of the local craft store. Everyone is out-shining each other, dressed in as many sequins as they feel adequately represents their inner ~sparkle~ and usually with a glittery eye look to match. But, especially this time of year, we should be extremely aware of the negative impacts that glitter and sequins can have on our environment—namely, that they're just as bad as, if not worse than, the microbeads that have been banned from our skin-care products.
Stephen Cotton, the commercial director at biodegradable glitter brand Bioglitter, says that the issue of glitter is "exactly the same issue" as microbeads. Dr. Linda Campbell, a professor at Saint Mary's University and the director of its School of Environment, says that the fact that glitter "tends to be flat, maybe with sharp edges to it" means that the two will move through the environment differently, though. The most obvious place to see environmental damage is the ocean, since washing sparkly products off of our bodies causes them to wind up in large bodies of water. Cotton notes that "glitter is a microplastic, and when you wash it off, as it is very small, it has the potential to pass through filtration systems in sewage facilities and end up in our waterways and oceans."
Dr. Campbell also told me that the negative impact of sequins and glitter on our environment is twofold: Not only will their addition to the oceans prove harmful to the wildlife, but their production and the materials they are made from can also have a detrimental effect on the planet. When it comes to the effect on the underwater ecosystems, it's not simply damaging that the plastic is floating around in the water—it's much worse than that. When small materials like sequins and glitter enter the oceans, they are ingested by small organisms. "Glitter is sparkly, and everyone and everything likes sparkly things," Dr. Campbell notes. "Organisms might be more attracted to the sparkle of the glitter, compared to microbeads."
And a potentially toxic, definitely not nutrient-dense sequin or piece of glitter can end up becoming a harmful food source for these small organisms. These materials "can replace their food, so basically they'll be starving themselves by eating this glitter." And so, not only would the smallest organisms starve, but their deaths will lead to starvation further up the food chain as well. "Because there would be less and less food at the base of the food web," she says, the effects can travel up from the smallest organisms to the largest. And the negative impacts caused by marine ingestion of these materials can have detrimental effects on humans, too: "There's a growing concern of how this could impact us," Cotton says. "We are potentially consuming marine life, which could contain microplastics," so it's possible that we could also be negatively impacted.
Sequins and glitter are usually made from plastic or aluminum, and, Dr. Campbell says, the production and processing of those materials "can be very toxic." Rachel Clowes, the founder of the Sustainable Sequin Company, notes that PVC plastic, which sequins are often made from, "causes particularly significant environmental and health risks, producing toxic, bioaccumulative chemicals, including carcinogens and hormone disruptors."
And, too, plastic and aluminum "can absorb contaminants in the environment," says Dr. Campbell, "so that can be another way of transferring contaminants into the food chain." This harmful production process, and the fact that these products degrade incredibly slowly, are just not worth it for a garment that will only be worn a few times. "Conventional sequins can persist in the environment for thousands of years, even if only worn for a few hours," she says.
What's standing in the way of us just ditching the materials completely, if they wreak so much havoc on our environment? Clowes points to the fact that single-use plastics are just more convenient, and people are not forced to look for alternatives yet. Buying plastic glitter at a craft store or a sequin dress at a fast fashion store is much easier than searching for a sustainable product online, much like grabbing a plastic straw for your drink is easier than carrying a metal one around with you all the time. "I think as a society we are finally waking up to the problems that plastic poses, but we don't want to lose the convenience it provides us with," Clowes says. And yes, there are some bans on plastic straws being put in place, and some festivals have disallowed glitter, but the change is not widespread enough.
Dr. Campbell notes that we should be focusing on the detrimental environmental effects that fast fashion as a whole can have. A lot of the pieces are made with plastic-based materials, and "when you wash those articles, they can make microfibers during wash process, which goes into the water systems as well." Added to that, "sometimes, they're using glitter and sequins on top of that." She urges consumers of glitter and sequins, especially when it comes to fast fashion items, to "ask ourselves, How much do we need those glitter and sequins, what do we need them for?" If you just want to look cool for a night out, maybe think of a more sustainable alternative.
If you need glitter and sequins in your life, Dr. Campbell suggests investing in a piece of clothing that is ethically and sustainably produced, which will last a long time and could then be sold as a vintage piece. And if you feel the urge to use glitter, she says, wash it off with a washcloth instead of in the sink, and then throw the washcloth in the trash so that the glitter doesn't make its way into the water.
We'd suggest seeking out alternatives that don't clog the environment: Lush uses glitter that is made from seaweed, so it decomposes. And the two brands we spoke with here, Bioglitter and the Sustainable Sequin Company, both offer great alternatives to the mass-produced products we see in stores. Bioglitter is made from 92 percent plastic-free materials, and the Sustainable Sequin Company offers sequins that decompose after a few washes.
Overall, it's important to pay attention to what you're putting on your body, whether it be your makeup or your shiny New Year's Eve dress. Looking great in your party photos doesn't have to come at the cost of the environment.