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A glitter that might not be bad for the environment

Most of the traditional glitter ends up in bodies of water after a single use. A UK-based company is trying to make it eco-friendly

Traditional glitter is a microplastic
Traditional glitter is a microplastic (Unsplash)

A bit of glitter is like a bottle of champagne on New Year’s Eve: It’s all fun and games until the next morning. Traditional glitter is a microplastic, which means most of it ends up in bodies of water after a single use. Earlier this year, the European Union banned the sale of loose-plastic glitter entirely, citing the impacts on the environment. 

That doesn’t mean the party’s over, at least not if the purveyors of Bioglitter have anything to say about it. Invented by Ronald Britton Ltd., a UK-based metal-powder supplier, Bioglitter breaks down naturally in freshwater habitats within four weeks, according to its marketing materials.

“Because of their smaller size, microplastics get into literally everywhere in the environment,” says Paul Anastas, director of the Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering at Yale University. “Perhaps most importantly, they’ve been found in living things—from plants to small organisms, large organisms, marine life and, yes, humans.” 

Also read: All that glitters is…swallowed by an unsuspecting fish

The Bioglitter journey began about 12 years ago, when Ronald Britton held a meeting to discuss a cosmetics customer’s complaints about the environmental impacts of plastic glitter. At the time, it was the only kind of glitter the company sold. 

“Driving back in the car, I thought, We need to replace this with something,” says Andrew Thompson, a Bioglitter product manager at Germany’s Sigmund Lindner, which bought the brand from Ronald Britton earlier this year. “Speaking to one or two manufacturers at the time, it was evident that nobody really had a good solution to the problem of how to replace the plastic.” 

Ronald Britton decided to create its own product. After consulting experts in biodegradability, the company set its sights on glitter that could safely degrade in freshwater—less ambitious than glitter that biodegrades in (more complex) marine environments, but better than a product that only breaks down in industrial composting conditions. 

“The chemistry of freshwater in rivers and lakes around the world, it’s very similar. It’s well understood. And the lab test methods that are recreating the conditions of freshwater are very well understood,” says Stephen Cotton, sales manager of glitter at Signmund Lindner. “So we used that as our guide.”

Traditional glitter is made of a thin sheet of two types of plastics—polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It’s then coated with aluminum for shine and cut into small, hexagonal pieces. The Ronald Britton team decided to replace the plastic with regenerated cellulose, the stuff of plant cell walls. 

To make Bioglitter’s cellulose base, the company sources wood pulp from Europe, often from eucalyptus trees. The wood is FSC- or PEFC-certified, a label that indicates forests managed in line with strict sustainability standards. After the wood is transported to Bioglitter’s two factories in Germany, the cellulose molecules are extracted from the pulp and reconstituted into a clear film, which is then coated with a thin layer of aluminum and color. 

The ultimate test of Ronald Britton’s creation was the freshwater-certification process, administered by testing and inspection company TUV Austria. The process can take up to 12 months, requires a detailed breakdown of all raw materials, and costs more than $50,000. 

“We wanted to differentiate ourselves and really show how our products were the best in the world,” Cotton says. The process took 10 months and concluded in January 2019; Ronald Britton now touts Bioglitter as the only certified freshwater-biodegradable glitter currently on the market. Its first buyers came from the cosmetics industry.

Even with the certification, Bioglitter’s bonafides aren’t perfect. One study in 2021 found that both biodegradable and conventional glitter have harmful effects on plant life in freshwater habitats, and that glitter with a cellulose core encourages the growth of invasive species.

“When we’re talking about greenwashing, we're always thinking, Are you giving an overly positive view of what you're doing?” says Wren Montgomery, an associate professor of sustainability at the Ivy Business School at Western University in Canada. “I would think this is giving an overly positive view.” 

Even if Bioglitter does degrade, that doesn’t mean we should let it, says Rafael Auras, a professor in packaging sustainability at Michigan State University, since the degradation process adds non-naturally-occurring cellulose to ecosystems. 

As microplastics get more scrutiny, demand for Bioglitter is growing. After the cosmetics customers came the environmentally friendly festival scene, then the crafting industry, then clothing. Earlier this year, Guess launched a T-shirt and sweatshirt line printed with BioGlitter. Sigmund Lindner’s acquisition of Bioglitter in May was spurred by a desire to “fix the glitter problem,” Cotto says. 

The company is still refining Bioglitter to improve its glitter-y effect and its utility. Today the product comes in three different effects. Biosparkle has a traditional metallic finish, while BioHolo has a more holographic effect. Biopure, in addition to an opalescent look; replaces the shimmer-inducing aluminum coating with one made from natural or synthetic mica.

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