I will be upfront: I’m no fan of glitter, also known as wearable garbage or that thing only rich people who don’t have to clean up after themselves can ever really enjoy. It’s both omnipresent and irksome, a mediocre marketing tool and probably outdated form of protest.
But still. The proposed global ban on glitter has spiraled out of control.
For a little background, on Nov. 16, Trisia Farrelly, a lecturer at Massey University in New Zealand with a focus on plastics, told British newspaper the Independent that glitter wasn’t just a glitzy pollutant but a serious environmental hazard: “I think all glitter should be banned, because it’s microplastic.” Inexplicably, some two weeks later, American outlets, including the decidedly un-bedazzled New York Times, started reprinting Farrelly’s statement, using it as the basis for entire articles with titles like “Scientists are trying to put a global ban on glitter” (that one’s courtesy of the New York Daily News). The theoretical ban quickly gained traction among Kesha critics and craft purists. In the midst of yet another brutal week, the impending glitter ban just felt like the right thing to talk about—no matter which side you were on.
The scientific rationale for a glitter ban is similarly simple: Microplastics, which Farrelly argues is a category that includes glitter, are fragments of plastics smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter. Microplastics can develop when larger pieces of plastic degrade, but they’re often also created from scratch. Microbeads, which were popular in exfoliants and other bath and beauty products, are a type of microplastics. When these bits and bobs end up in the ocean or other waterways—which each year millions of pounds inevitably do—they can be ingested by fish and other aquatic life and cause blockages, mutations, and other injuries.
The problems posed by microplastics have gripped the public consciousness in recent years. In 2015, the United States outlawed the production of microbead-containing cosmetics. Many countries, including the United Kingdom and Farrelly’s own New Zealand, have made similar efforts to stem this microplastic tide.
Still, Farrelly says, many other factors contributing to the current scourge of microplastics remain unregulated. That’s why she wants glitter banned, too, from both craft stores and Sephora. As yhr Independent notes, some cosmetic companies and craft stories have already replaced traditional glitter with more biodegradable alternatives, though the veracity of these companies’ claims is unclear. But apparently people want to go at least a step further with a global ban.
The problem is, while manufactured microplastics like microbeads and glitter certainly seem to be a threat, they’re an infinitesimal part of the enormous plastic problem. Degrading plastic, which is thought to be the source of the majority of ocean plastic pollution, is complicated and multisourced. Any plastic—from improperly discarded milk cartons to pesky plastic bags that flew away in the breeze—can be transformed by the beating sun, lapping waves, and the ticking of the clock into a fish-killing microplastic soup.
So yeah, we can go ahead and ban glitter. But no one should be fooled into thinking a war on glitter will really save the oceans. The end of the world seems close. Let it sparkle.