Decades after the late 1970s, the death of disco has officially hit Europe. That's because the governing body behind most of the continent has banned the sale of several types of plastic glitter, due to the dangers they pose to the environment and to human health.
The ban, which went into place on Oct. 17, 2023, comes as part of a larger commitment by the European Commission to reduce the release of microplastics. So, what makes glitter such a terrible threat to ecosystems, and which sorts of glitter are specifically included in the ban?
Why Ban Glitter?
"Glitter is just one form of plastic pollution," says Erica Cirino, spokesperson of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. "All plastic items and the production processes used to make plastics release microplastic and myriad other pollutants."
But glitter is a particularly potent pollutant, in and of itself, thanks to its structure and process of production.
Is Glitter A Microplastic?
"Today, most glitters available on the market are essentially microplastics, as they are made of polyesters and are of a size smaller than 5 millimeters," says Meral Yurtsever, a plastic researcher at Sakarya University in Turkey in a study about the threat of glitter. "Given their tasteless, odorless, invisible, durable, and, last but certainly not least, ubiquitous characteristics," they "pose a substantial threat for the environment and the biota, as a sneaky and persistent contaminant."
Is Glitter Worse Than Other Microplastics?
While other larger pieces of plastic take time to break down into microplastic particles, glitters are already in a microplastic form and are almost impossible to clean up, making them a more immediate threat. One handful of glitter, Yurtsever says, may contain millions of toxic microplastics or nanoplastics, which, when ingested, disrupt animal and human health.
"When we blow this handful of glitter in our garden, we cause millions of [microplastics] to be dispersed into the soil," Yurtsever says of one harmful application of glitter. "A very cheap and simple process. The result: Rapid and irreversible environmental pollution."
Read More: The Fight Against Microplastics
What Types of Glitter Are Being Banned?
Included in the European Commission's ban is loose plastic glitter, the type that's common for sprinkling over crafting projects or scattering over plants or bushes during a birthday party.
This type of glitter is non-biodegradable and insoluble, meaning it is incapable of being dissolved in water, and is often made using plastic pellets — a type of microplastic that has come under scrutiny by researchers and environmentalists in recent years.
What Types of Glitter Aren't Being Banned?
But not all glitters are as good as gone in Europe. The European Commission says that loose glitters made from "biodegradable, soluble, natural, and inorganic" materials, including metal and glass, are still up for sale.
Also acceptable are glitters that are trapped inside inks, paints, pastes, and glues and other solid objects, and glitters that are completely contained, like the shimmering flakes that float inside snowglobes.
"Only certain types and uses of glitter are concerned, depending on what the glitter is made of, what [it] is used for, and whether it is loose, trapped in or attached to an object," the European Commission shared in an article about implementation of the new regulation.
Glitter in Cosmetics
Not opposed to shimmer, the executive arm of the European Union insists it doesn’t have a problem with sparkly clubbing makeup. At least for now. Over time, the ban will extend to cosmetics containing microplastic glitters, with cut-off dates in 2027 for rinse-off cosmetics, 2029 for leave-on cosmetics, and 2035 for make-up and nail cosmetics.
"The purpose is not to ban all glitter but replace plastic glitter with more environmentally friendly glitter that does not pollute our oceans," the European Commission added in the Q&A.
Read More: We’re Facing an Uncertain Plastic Future
What Problems Can Glitter Cause?
Making them all the more noxious, glitters are often produced out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, says Yurtsever, in shapes only 250 micrometers in size.
What Is PET Plastic?
These tiny plastic pieces are then coated in metal and polymer to provide the desired shine. Little is known about the problems that PET plastics can cause in the environment, and less is known about glitters specifically.
But some studies have shown that glitter can cause stress in marine mussels, separate from the stress caused by other types of microplastics, while others have revealed that glitter can change the functioning of freshwater ecosystems.
One explanation for their unique effects is that glitter and other PET plastics are more dense in comparison to other plastics, meaning that they are more prone to sinking to the bottom of bodies of water and accumulating there, says Yurtsever.
Can Glitter Contain Toxic Chemicals?
Though petroleum-based PET plastics don’t break down in their environments easily, the harmful chemical components often included in glitters and other PET plastics (like polymers and phthalates) can leak into ecosystems over time.
"These properties can have a highly toxic effect on the environment and living things," Yurtsever says. They can irritate people's skin, for instance, and are associated with disrupted development, reproduction disorders, cardiovascular concerns, and cancer.
Read More: The Dangers of Microplastics in Humans
What Other Plans Are Coming to Cut Plastic Pollution?
The glitter ban is just one piece of the European Union's plan to curtail plastic pollution. The EU Commission estimates 52,000 tonnes to 184,000 tonnes of plastic pellets are released into the environment every year due to mishandling in the supply chain. As the glitter ban took effect in October, the Commission announced a new proposal to curtail this mishandling and reduce plastic pellet release by up to 74 percent.
The Dangers of Plastic Pellets
"Putting plastic onto and into our bodies harms our health and the health of the planet, and so the EU's recent ban on plastic glitter is a positive step forward in reducing microplastic pollution," Cirino says. "Globally, leaders must take swift, serious action to drastically cut industries' production of all plastics, particularly rapidly used and discarded single-use plastic products and packaging, and sever their reliance on fossil fuels, which are used to make plastic."
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