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All that glitters is…swallowed by an unsuspecting fish

  • Sequins, an enduring style trend, have an environmentally problematic dark side
  • Lounge breaks down what’s wrong with them and where they end up after being used

Narain’s daughters in their sequinned T-shirts.
Narain’s daughters in their sequinned T-shirts. (Photo: Ashima Narain)

I am the mother of two girly girls, and a boyish boy. They are specimens who reinforce gender stereotypes—the boy likes cars, trains, planes and Batman while the girls like glitter and more glitter. Much of my daughters’ wardrobes have now been taken up by sequinned T-shirts that change colour when stroked in different directions, much like a temperamental cat.

As their arsenal of sparkle grew, so did my level of discomfort. But I didn’t get the time or opportunity to explore it until this last weekend, which was unusually social by my standards. I attended three parties over two days and was overwhelmed by the amount of shimmer and shine I saw on grown women. By Sunday I took it as a matter of social exigency to examine my uneasiness with what I have termed the “disco-ball phenomenon". So I sat on my sofa and google-searched “environmental impact of sequins". BOOM! My world changed, and so will my daughters’ wardrobes, even if they don’t know it yet.

Let’s start at the very beginning—I believe it is a very good place to start. Sequins are made from plastic. Just to make sequin film, almost 33% of the material is wasted in the conventional punching process.

Rachel Clowes founded The Sustainable Sequin Company when she realized “special occasion clothing is often made from polluting and non-biodegradable materials that last much longer than the fleeting active life of the garment. These clothes represent wasted resources, energy, and labour. Plastic sequins shimmer for a few hours on the dance floor, then languish at the back of the wardrobe for a few years, before lying intact in a landfill for a few centuries or more. Both the raw materials from which sequins are derived (including PVC additives), and the waste created by short-term use of long-lasting plastic, are an environmental problem."

But here is the other problem. Even if you wear it often, like my girls do, it has to be washed regularly. All materials shed fibres in a wash, but tiny microfibres from synthetic fabrics, ranging from 1mm to 7 micromillimetres, will be washed down a drain if washed by hand, or escape the filters of a washing machine, and a sewage treatment plant—if there is one for your area—to enter our rivers, lakes or oceans. But why such a fuss over a teeny bit of lint?

In 2011, Mark Browne published a study on seawater samples collected from both Poles and the equator to reveal that the amount of plastic from polyester and synthetic fibres was six times greater than the plastic from sources like bottles and bags—or put another way, microfibres make up 85% of human-made debris found in coastal waters around the world, so the shocking images of kilometres of plastic waste floating on the ocean’s surfaces is just a small fraction of the problem.

Now it gets more insidious. Pesticides, industrial chemicals and heavy metals are all attracted to plastic. So while these floaty fibres are busy absorbing these delicacies, let us not forget that they are often already carrying their own chemicals from dyes and other pollution infusions. These chemical cocktails find their way into the stomachs and systems of fish and other wildlife, mostly at the base of the food chain. Therefore, every time a predator gobbles up a smaller animal that has a bellyful of poisoned plastic, there is potential for it to bioaccumulate, or concentrate the toxins every time larger and larger fauna have lunch.

I confess, I too rode the wave of excitement when I learnt of companies turning ocean plastic into wearable textiles, but it was shorter lived than Kim Kardashian’s solo music career. New research has found that when you break a plastic bottle, the millions of fibrous bits are more detrimental to marine health than if you leave it where you found it. A garment made from recycled plastic will shed thousands of fibres in a single wash, these will find their way into our sea or freshwater systems, making it a far greater villain than other non-recycled plastic.

I have not even started talking about microplastics yet—but essentially, if you do want to channel your inner unicorn by wearing sequins and glitter, bits of tiny plastics will find their way into our water and food chain and act almost exactly the same way microfibres do. Scientists have found that many fish whose guts were loaded with microplastics died before their reproductive age. They have also found microplastics in most of the seafood that finds its way on to your plate.

If it is in our seafood, it will most likely be in our drinking water. According to Maria Neira, director of the public heath department at the World Health Organization, “We urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere—including in our drinking water." She did go on to say it has not yet reached a level that is dangerous to humans—but do we really want to wait for that to happen?

After oil, textile production is the second most polluting sector in the world, and the fashion industry generates about 10% of global carbon emissions, so while it is fun to be dazzled and be dazzling, our choices on what to wear do really impact our environment—and this was the news I had to break to my four- and six-year-old daughters.

Without revealing all the details, I will say that a cease-fire and a tentative resolution on the Mum v/s Fun War of 2019 was reached. Both parties accepted the “Big Three" formulated to assure justice and fair dealing with other creatures of the world and the environment:

l Sequinned anything will only be worn once a week—the day has to be stipulated in advance and entered into and shared on the Google calendar for moderating parties to avoid undue repetition.

l The party who wears the item of concern will hand-wash it gently herself to avoid the release of excessive number of fibres caused by the friction of high-speed spinning in a washing machine.

l Once the sequinned items become small or spoilt, no further items shall be purchased or asked for.

I formulated my own unspoken and unwritten “Small Two", as I would rather blame the situation in the sea on my children than assume culpability publicly. But just between you and me, I realized:

l For the thousands of years sport was played, races were run, yoga was asana-ed without dri-fit, so as a non-professional athlete my performance might not suffer too much if I swap it for natural fabrics.

l I can sacrifice my Saturday night tummy-tucker for the happiness of a hake.

Ashima Narain is a Mumbai-based photographer and film-maker.

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