One of the best — and worst — parts of home craft projects with kids usually involves spreading sparkly stuff around. You may also find glitter at schools, music festivals, in boat paint, and even in cosmetics for added glitz and glam. However, glitter isn’t just annoying to get out of clothes and carpets; it’s a pollutant. This microplastic craft material definitely does not belong in nature, but without an eco-friendly glitter alternative, it is difficult to prevent it from washing down drains.
But all is not lost! Researchers have found biodegradable materials inspired by biomimicry that could potentially replace it in shiny craft and cosmetics. Made from long ribbons of cellulose nanocrystals, this eco-friendly glitter could take over the crafting and festivals scene.
Glitter as a Pollutive Microplastic
Glitter may sparkle, but it has definitely lost its shine with the environment. The problem is both its size as much as its construction. As The Conversation describes, glitter is simply plastic in disguise. According to a BBC article, it’s made out of a thin polyester PET plastic film core that’s coated with aluminum and then capped with another plastic layer.
It’s too small to pick up and dispose of manually, which means that a lot of glitter is simply washed away into our drains. From there, it makes its way into water courses and eventually the ocean. A letter in Geochemical Perspectives notes that these crafty particles have even been found at the bottom of the deepest ocean trenches. What’s even more staggering is that in these depths, the abundance of glitter is comparable to highly polluted coastal waters such as the Yangtze River and the Strait of Georgia.
The Trouble With Glitter
Glitter is troublesome because of its size; it’s easily gobbled up as food, where it fills tiny bellies with non-nutritive plastic trash. Insider explains that because it enters the lowest tiers of the food chain, it causes death by accumulation as larger and larger animals dine out. As the BBC article notes, lab studies showed that contamination in U.K. rivers reduced common plant abundance.
One of the main problems with glitter in the food chain is that the PET plastics hold toxins that slowly leach out inside the host or into the environment. These toxins can also include hormone disruptors that affect fertility, behavior and health in general. The plastics last for years, degrading only very slowly, so the release of toxins is prolonged. Fast Company also notes that there is some evidence that microplastics can also lodge in our body tissues. When trapped here, it could lead to chronic inflammation. Initial research shows that microplastics embedded within tissues trigger an immune system reaction. This is definitely concerning since chronic inflammation can lead to other disease, including cancer.
Modern glitter has been around since 1934, and until recently, no eco-friendly alternatives were available. Even bioglitters were not truly biodegradable since they often just contained less plastic and required very specific composting to break down properly.
According to Green Matters, bioglitter could still cause environmental damage. In fact, not only does plant-based bioglitter still contain plastic and aluminum, but it’s also been shown to stunt freshwater plant root growth, reduce phytoplankton abundance and lead to an increase in invasive land snails.
Since around 2016, many festivals now ban use of glitter because of its impact on waterways.
However, the arrival of a promising eco-friendly glitter could make festivals and children’s crafts sparkle once again. Science News describes how researchers took inspiration from nature to make glitter from plants.
The study, reported in Nature Materials, describes how the team explored industrial production of ribbon films created from cellulose nanocrystals. The team was first inspired by a plant from forested regions of Africa, Pollia condensata, in which cellulose patterns in cell walls create shimmery blue marble berries as fruits. They were able to mimic this pattern by creating nanoscale cellulose fiber patterns that would reflect light.
Using a roll-to-roll deposition process, the researchers were able to expand production to industrial-scale lengths of the product. These sheets could then be ground down into particles as eco-friendly glitter. Not only is the process sustainable, since the starting materials come from plants, but the glitter produced can replace toxic and pollutive materials for safer arts and crafts.
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