How Glitter Could Be Damaging Rivers

Even biodegradable litter is likely causing harm.

jars of colorful glitter
Traditional plastic glitter is often made from plastic and a reflective material like aluminum. Adrienne Bresnahan / Getty Images

You might see it as part of someone’s Halloween makeup or tucked into a holiday greeting card. Sparkly glitter certainly makes an impact. But then it gets tossed or washed away. Eventually those tiny pieces of mirrored plastic make it into storm drains and then waterways.

All that discarded glitter could be causing ecological damage to rivers and lakes, according to new research. And it really doesn’t seem to make much of a difference if the glitter is biodegradable. It’s still causing harm.

The study is the first to look at the effects of glitter in freshwater habitats, researchers say. It found that after 36 days, the presence of glitter impacted the root length of the aquatic plant duckweed (Lemna minor). Levels of chlorophyll in the water were three times lower than in water without glitter, indicating lower levels of microalgae.

“Microalgae are primary producers and, like duckweed, they are at the bottom of the food web, fueling the ecosystem and any impacts on those could cause follow on effects to the food web,” Dannielle Green, lead author and senior lecturer in biology at Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K., tells Treehugger.

“It is important to note that the concentration we used was high and thus represents a very large local input into the waterways, for example after a festival. We need to carry out more research, looking at lower concentrations and at longer periods of time, to determine safe levels.”

The results were published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials.

Banning Glitter

Wrapped gifts for Christmas Celebration
Some stores in the U.K. aren't selling glittery in-house holiday items this year. Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

Glitter has been around in some form since prehistoric times when ancient civilizations used ground-up mica, glass, and other reflective materials to add sparkle to their paintings. According to glitter lore, in the 1930s, New Jersey machinist Henry Ruschmann invented a way to grind up plastic like Mylar to make bulk amounts of glitter.

But recently, the sparkly bits have been losing their appeal.

Trisia Farrelly, an environmental anthropologist at Massey University in New Zealand, has suggested that glitter be banned

“There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the toxins released by microplastics and the additional pollutants absorbed by plastics in aquatic environments — what some marine scientists are now referring to as ‘poison pills’ — can bioaccumulate up the food chain with the potential to disrupt the endocrine systems of sea life, and us when we consume seafood,” she said in a university release.

In the U.K., several major retailers have announced that they won’t use glitter in any in-house products this holiday season, The New York Times reports. Grocery chains Morrisons and Waitrose and department store John Lewis won’t have glittery cards, wrapping paper, or other holiday items this year.

“Glitter is made from tiny particles of plastic and is an ecological hazard if it becomes dispersed on land, rivers and oceans — where it takes hundreds of years to degrade, said Morrisons in a statement.

Glitter is often compared to microbeads, the tiny pieces of plastic once added to personal care products for skin exfoliation. Microbeads have since been banned in rinse-off cosmetics in the U.S., as well as Canada and the U.K., and several other countries around the world.

Microbeads and glitter have comparable impacts on the freshwater ecosystem, Green says.

“The observed effects are quite similar,” she says. “Other studies have found that other types of microplastics can cause similar impacts on duckweed, for example.”