Glitter – Microplastics in a Glamorous Disguise

As an Applications Specialist at Malvern Panalytical, I get to work with a wide range of customer samples, and I enjoy showing how our instrument portfolio can help identify and solve research, industrial or environmental problems. One topic that has got me thinking recently is microplastics…

We all receive birthday or Christmas cards covered in glitter – you open it up, admire the pretty image and then get faintly annoyed as the glitter inevitably transfers to just about every available surface in its proximity, including your hands. You then go to wash your hands, and the glitter ends up going down the drain and into our waterways.

What’s glitter made out of?

The problem with this is that modern glitter is normally made of plastic, made by layering sheets of plastic and reflective materials such as aluminium together and cutting it into tiny pieces. And this means it’s contributing to our huge global microplastic problem.

Microplastics are defined as synthetic polymer particles with a size less than 5 mm and have been found to accumulate in soil and waterways, which harms marine organisms and ultimately can end up in our food.

How to measure the particle size distribution of glitter?

The particle size distribution of glitter can be quickly and reproducibly measured using the Mastersizer 3000 with the Aero S dry dispersion accessory. Here we’ve looked at three different coloured glitters sold for children’s crafts, which have particle sizes ranging up to around 2 mm.

Glitter measurement Mastersizer particle size distribution of glitter

Measuring glitter on the Mastersizer 3000 configured with the Aero S micro tray, and the measured particle size distributions.

Microplastics and environment

It is estimated that 2-5% of all plastics (including microplastics) produced end up in the oceans. Along with the drive to reduce our personal plastic consumption (see the #SCRAPPLASTIC CHALLENGE post) for some great ideas), the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has recently proposed restrictions to reduce the amount of microplastics released to the environment in the EU by about 400,000 tonnes over the next twenty years.

Much like microbeads, which were banned from cosmetics and personal care products in the UK in 2018, there is now a call to ban plastic glitter. When you stop to think about it, glitter is everywhere: cards and crafts, cosmetics, ornaments and clothes to just name a few. Fortunately, there are biodegradable alternatives available, so the world shouldn’t become a duller place without plastic glitter.