Wednesday, December 29, 2021

All That Glitters Isn’t Green


We’re told that diamonds are eternal, but it turns out that glitter, which is just as sparkly and way cheaper, could be equally enduring. Parents, teachers and day-care providers know that despite their efforts to wash the stuff down the drain, glitter will inevitably wind up in their breakfast, their eyes, or on the lapels of their business suit worn to a crucial meeting with the boss.

glitterI never would have imagined that glitter could be a pollutant of concern. At my age I need glasses to find a postage stamp – it’s a long shot that I could help pick up glitter. It seems fair to ask whether there aren’t bigger fish to fry. Apparently that’s exactly the problem: microplastics have become one of the most serious threats to marine and freshwater ecosystems. Defined as plastic shards measuring five millimeters or less in diameter, they pose a danger to aquatic organisms as well as to human health. 

Microplastics, which can act as carcinogens and endocrine disrupters, have made their way into much of our food supply. They’re even found in many bottled water brands and public water systems. Glitter is especially bad, as each plastic square is bonded to a fleck of metal as well as to a toxic pigment. In 2020, the British newspaper The Guardian ran a story headlined “Glitter Is an Environmental Abomination,” and The Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation released a statement calling glitter “A Sparkling Nightmare for Oceans.”  It seems that glitter is anything but green.

Fortunately, the glitter problem will soon have an elegant solution inspired by bird feathers and insect wings. In a study published in the journal Nature Materials on November 11, 2021, researchers from Cambridge University in the UK detailed how they made nontoxic, biodegradable plant-based glitter by copying nature. 

It has long been known that some birds like indigo buntings and hummingbirds don’t actually have pigments in their feathers – the red, green or blue cannot be chemically removed or leached away. Their flashy “paint job” comes from the way light reflects off of microscopic structures in their feathers. This phenomenon is called structural coloration.

Led by Cambridge University professor of chemistry Silvia Vignolini, a team at the University’s Photonics Lab used wood pulp to make multicolored glitter. They were able to engineer nanoparticles of cellulose into helicoidal forms shaped somewhat like a spiral staircase that reflect and refract white light at various wavelengths. 

While her team used wood pulp for convenience, Professor Vignolini believes that any plant-based fiber such as banana peels or crop waste can be used to make structural colors in this way. She also projects that many toxic dyes and inks will soon be replaced by her team’s safe and sustainable technology.

The research team figured out ways to influence the size of the “steps” within cellulose helixes as well as to regulate how tightly the spirals are coiled in order to make a spectrum of structural pigments. Sheets of their manipulated cellulose were then ground up into pieces of appropriate size. 

But their new product is not mere colored confetti – it sparkles as effectively as traditional plastic-metal glitter does. This is due to the fact that light is constantly striking the helicoidal forms at different angles. And as an observer moves, even slightly, relative to the structures, it makes them appear to twinkle as well. This will be the first truly green glitter: biodegradable, compostable, renewable, and utterly nontoxic. Maybe now only diamonds will be forever.

You can access the Cambridge University study on cellulose-based glitter here

Paul Hetzler is a former Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator. He probably should replace the glitter engagement ring he gave to his wife. 

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

5 Responses

  1. Randy Fredlund says:

    Gee, no Amazon link in the Cambridge study. Where can we get some “Hummingbird Paint”?

  2. Emily says:

    That’s great news! I wonder if soon they’ll be able to replace all plastics with this type of material.

  3. Boreas says:

    What do the researchers say about the shade? Indigo Buntings, Bluebirds, and Blue Jays pretty much turn dark, muddy grey in the shade.

    But at least SOMEONE is addressing contributors to rapidly increasing microplastic pollution! Kudos!

  4. JB says:

    Microplastics, macroplastics, they’re all ubiquitous–including in our bodies and in the Adirondack environment. The real threat, though, is the additives. I remember reading a study where scientists were trying to measure something to do with plastic additives, and they said that “vanilla” plastic reference material (I think it was polyethylene) was literally impossible to source from anywhere. I think the additive count was typically in the hundreds of compounds per sample, ranging from everything from plasticizers to organophosphates (heat stabilizers, UV blockers, pesticides) to organohalogens (flame retardants). In terms of eco-friendly glitter, I’m not too optimistic, since I once heard that the glitter industry is dominated by one extremely secretive corporation. Kind of like the confetti industry I’d imagine.

  5. Susan says:

    My big Christmas pet peeve- when I open the mail on the dining room table, and the Christmas cards from dear friends and family come out of their envelopes, and a cascade of glitter follows, all over the table, floor and my clothes. PLEASE pick glitterless cards for the sake of my home, my person, my pets, and the environment.

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