CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — As fans of arts and crafts will tell you, glitter gets everywhere. When it comes to the planet, pollution is also spreading this decorative nuisance into the Earth’s waters. Scientists have already called for governments to ban glitter’s production because of its impact on ocean life, but a new study finds rivers and lakes are just as vulnerable.
Researchers from Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) say the presence of glitter in freshwater lakes or rivers can significantly impede the local ecosystem. Even more concerning, glitters that are supposed be more eco-friendly and biodegradable did just as much damage as normal plastics.
“Many of the microplastics found in our rivers and oceans have taken years to form, as larger pieces of plastic are broken down over time, However, glitter is a ready-made microplastic that is commonly found in our homes and, particularly through cosmetics, is washed off in our sinks and into the water system,” ARU’s Dr. Dannielle Green says in a university release.
“Our study is the first to look at the effects of glitter in a freshwater environment and we found that both conventional and alternative glitters can have a serious ecological impact on aquatic ecosystems within a short period of time.”
Glitter a serious source of plastic peril
Glitter may seem like a simple decorative craft, but there’s a lot that goes into making it. Traditional glitter products have a plastic core composed of a polyester PET film. It’s then coated with aluminum and sealed with more plastic.
Biodegradable alternatives include those made with a core of modified regenerated cellulose (MRC). This material usually comes from eucalyptus trees, but these glitters still have an aluminum coating and are covered in plastic.
The study looked at how these products affected freshwater sources for 36 days. During that time, researchers reveal regular PET glitter cut the growth of common duckweed in half. Duckweeds are an important food source for fish and certain birds. Levels of chlorophyll in these rivers and lakes was also three times lower than in clean water sources.
Despite being marketed as the healthier choice, researchers say their results show MRC glitters had the same impact on duckweed root length and chlorophyll levels. The study notes one major difference between the two products. Water sources with biodegradable glitter pollution had twice the number of New Zealand mud snails. These animals are a common sight in polluted waters. They are an invasive species in the United Kingdom and researchers add they typically disrupt local ecosystems.
“All types, including so-called biodegradable glitter, have a negative effect on important primary producers which are the base of the food web, while glitter with a biodegradable cellulose core has an additional impact of encouraging the growth of an invasive species,” Dr. Green says.
The study appears in the Journal of Hazardous Materials.