All that glitters is not gold?

Zara Babakordi, 17th December 2020

As the nights draw in and the rain lashes outside, the fast-approaching festive season brings with it the joy of mince pies, baubles, and all things sparkly.  The season also brings an opportunity to pause and to reflect; to think about how single use plastics weave themselves into the festivities, and to consider how this is changing both now and in the future.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Let’s talk about glitter.  Shiny, sparkly, glitter.  Glitter is ubiquitous in our lives; it can be found in makeup, crafting, clothing, and more.  During the festive season in particular, we see glitter in all sorts of places: wrapping paper, baubles, decorations, crackers, to name a few.

But is this changing?

Earlier this year the UK retailer, Morrisons, announced plans to remove glitter across all of its own-brand items, including Christmas-themed products.  The supermarket chain joins John Lewis and Waitrose, who have similarly announced plans to remove glitter from their own-brand festive products – including crackers, cards, and wrapping paper, by the end of 2020.

In an online press release, Christine Bryce, Morrisons Home Director connected the decision to remove glitter with its single use properties, stating: “Every time a cracker is pulled, or a card is opened, plastics have been used … but just the once.”  Interestingly, the Home Director suggested this would allow customers to enjoy the festive season “without worrying about the environmental impact [of glitter].”  Glitter has been a staple feature of the festive season, for many years; but increasing concerns amongst the public about the problematics of this plastic is perhaps a newer phenomenon.  However, this does align with our research findings, showing institutions implemented several interventions all designed to reduce consumption of single use plastics in wider society, including (in the case of glitter) its outright ban.  The measure is also aligned with other groups and movements, campaigning for the ban of glitter in the UK. 

The glittering issue

Glitter often contains microplastics.  In recent years, it has been increasingly seen as harmful for both people and the environment, with suggestions these microplastics enter water sources (including oceans, rivers and lakes) and cause harm to plants, fish and birds.  Microplastics have been found in the seafloor and in marine animals; they have been found in rain water and in Artic ice; there are also suggestions we ourselves ingest microplastics.

Glitter is believed to contribute a small proportion of the total volume of microplastics entering the environment.  Nonetheless, if we consider the broader picture, glitter could perhaps be seen as reflective of the broader challenges tied to single use plastics.  This is intensified with their connection to the festive season, typically tied to ideas of indulgence and excess.  Glitter is not something necessarily associated with reuse or recycle – two core actions used within the circular economy to reduce single use plastics entering landfill or incineration.  For many retailers, the only option, therefore is reduction.

What might a festive season look like without glitter? With the rise in greater efforts to help the environment, perhaps the forthcoming festive season will be less sparkly, equally joyous and more meaningful.  

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