Glitter banned by EU with calls for Australia to follow

With Sydney’s Mardi Gras just around the corner, we can expect to see dazzling displays and outfits bejewelled with glitter taking to the streets to celebrate one of the world’s biggest LGBTQIA+ festivals. But how much is a bit of sparkle costing our environment?   

Around the world, glitter elevates fashion, makeup, crafts and performance. 

However, glitter is a microplastic (small plastic pieces less than 5 mm long) that is usually coated with a thin layer of metal. Like other microplastics, glitter ends up in waterways and oceans, posing detrimental threats to aquatic ecosystems.

A recent study of the Brazilian waterweed (Egeria densa), published in New Zealand Journal of Botany, has found the metal coating on glitter impairs aquatic plant growth. This coating hinders the underwater passage of light and hence significantly reduces the photosynthetic rates of the plant.

Lowering photosynthetic rates reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen in the surrounding water and can unbalance an ecosystem. 

Glitter: spotting invisible microplastics with a bit more light

“It’s important to warn society that changes in photosynthesis rates, however remote they may seem from our lives, are linked to other changes that affect us more directly, such as the decrease in primary production by food chains in aquatic environments [i.e. organisms at the bottom of the food chain],” says Professor Irineu Bianchini Jr., a co-author of the article from the Federal University of São Carlos, in a media release.

“If there are more sustainable alternatives to glitter, why not switch to these right away?” says Bianchini.  

The environmental issues relating to glitter encouraged Associate Professor Ipek Kurtböke, an environmental microbiologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast (UniSC), to call for a ban on glitter.

“There is overwhelming evidence on the threat it poses to aquatic life through ingestion, contact with its toxic ingredients and physical injury,” she told UniSC News

“In October [2023], it was banned in the European Union and Australia should immediately review the sale of these imported particles, given their potential effects on the health of our environment,” says Kurtböke. 

Her research suggests that even bio-glitter, made from biodegradable compounds, isn’t safe for marine ecosystems. 

Glitter clogs up pristine waterways and can’t easily be removed although it doesn’t appear to pose a threat to industrial sewerage systems.

Camilla Warner, Media Coordinator for SA Water, told Cosmos: “Our treatment plants are designed to remove general debris, including glitter, from our treated water … [but] we’ve never experienced a glitter challenge before.”

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