All that glitters is not gold – certainly not where birds and other wildlife are concerned. As our awareness of the dangers of plastic accumulation in the environment continues to rise, we have to be sure not to be enchanted by the glamour of glitter, and instead we need to recognize the threat that this seemingly innocuous, sparkly decoration can cause.
What Is Glitter?
We all know what glitter is – that sparkly decoration that gleams and glitzes on everything from greeting cards and gift wrap to toys, makeup, artwork, school projects, paper, pencils, fabrics, fishing lures, holiday decorations, and so much more. But what is glitter, really?
Glitter is tiny, reflective particles that are applied to products and surfaces to achieve a shimmering, sparkling effect. In the past, glitter has been made from different materials, including mica, hematite, glass, and even iridescent insect bodies and wings, but modern glitter is primarily plastic. First invented in 1934, plastic glitter is often layered with aluminum, titanium oxide, and coloring dyes before being cut into tiny shapes, including triangles and hexagons.
The Dangers of Glitter
Conventional plastic glitter can take as long as 1,000 years or more to decompose. This means that these tiny, sparkly bits of plastic have at least a millennium to work their way through the environment, and because they are so small, they can enter the food chain even in the tiniest of insects and plankton, which might mistake a piece of colorful glitter for a bit of fruit, a gnat, or some other tasty morsel.
Because the smallest microplastics – including glitter – have been detected even in tiny insects, all birds that consume insects are at risk from ingesting glitter. Even the tinest of birds – hummingbirds and todies – can inadvertently consume the tiniest of plastics and be subject to the risks this contamination may pose. Larger birds may not consume glitter directly, but will ingest this dangerous plastic from their prey – from the insects, fish, and other wildlife that do consume glitter further down the food chain.
Potential toxins in glitter could be dangerous to birds and other wildlife as they consume more and more of these microplastics. Sharp edges of glitter can cause internal injuries to the digestive tract if glitter is consumed, or even to the respiratory tract if the glitter is inhaled. Larger quantities of glitter can cause breathing problems or block the digestive tract, just as larger pieces and shards of plastic cause the same problems.
Glitter Can’t Be Recycled
Because glitter is so tiny, it cannot be recycled. Like trying to recycle straws, it is impractical to recycle bits of glitter, and instead these itty bitty shards clog recycling equipment or pass right through filters. Furthermore, because many plastic glitters are composite materials, it is impossible to separate the different materials for proper recycling. Instead, if a glittery card or glitter-coated gift wrap is part of a recycling batch, the entire load may be contaminated and must be scrapped rather than recycled.
Glitter has so many uses and is so pervasive as a decorative and blingy item in today’s society, it can be difficult to avoid. While some choices are easy – opting for holiday cards without glitter accents, or choosing makeup without glittery finishes – it can also be hard to avoid this damaging decoration at all times. Fortunately, there are alternatives to glitter that can still add some gleam to your life and style without the damaging effects of glitter.
- Opt for decorative items with metallic accents rather than full-on glitter for a less dangerous shiny accent.
- Choose ribbons, colored glues, or bold paints for children’s art projects, rather than glittery accents.
- Use food coloring to create colored sugar, sand, salt, or rice grains for similar effects without the dangers of microplastics.
- Use larger sparkly pieces, such as sequins or bigger confetti, that can be more easily cleaned up and contained.
If you do want to use glitter, consider more eco-friendly glitters, such as those made from cellulose or eucalyptus trees, which are more easily biodegradable and have fewer environmental impacts. Leading options include EcoStardust and Bioglitter, both created from sustainably farmed trees, but there are other options as well.
Is Tiny Glitter Really a Big Problem?
It can certainly seem to be an overreaction to oppose glitter when there are far bigger sources of plastic waste and environmental contamination in the world. While that’s entirely true, it is also true that small steps can add up to even big changes. Starting with a small step – opting out of glitter – can be your first step to other changes, and each step will lead toward a healthier environment for birds and all wildlife, including us.