Glitter eye makeup

Summer is here and the festival season is in full swing. With festivals comes glitter - and lots of it. Retailers and festivals are increasingly opting for biodegradable glitter as an ‘eco-friendly’ option. But it may not be as eco-friendly as you think.

Amy Claridge, Digital Officer

Amy Claridge, Digital Officer

Traditional vs biodegradable

Traditional glitter is made with small layers of plastic (Plastic Polyethylene Terephthalate ‘PET’). When these tiny microplastic pieces end up in the environment - either directly from things like glitter bombs at festivals, or indirectly when cosmetic glitter is washed off down a drain - they have damaging effects to marine life. Did you know that nearly one million tonnes of microplastic enters the ocean every year?

Companies are aware that traditional glitter is harmful to the environment, so there are now an increasing number of biodegradable options available – but what does ‘biodegradable’ actually mean?

The problem with biodegradable labelling

In 2018, we commissioned a survey by YouGov to inform work on single-use plastics and find out what the British public understands about the term ‘biodegradable’. According to the survey, 39% of people think an item labelled as ‘biodegradable’ would “break down causing no harm to the environment”, and 38% think that “if it was littered, it would cause less harm to the environment than a product not labelled as biodegradable”. But this may not be the case.

Glitter face

Biodegradable glitter may not be as eco-friendly as it claims to be

The problem with biodegradable labelling is that the eco-friendly claims are often misleading, vague, or false. ‘Biodegradable’ simply refers to materials which can be broken down and absorbed into the environment (by bacteria, fungi or microbes). But while everything we create will eventually break down – even plastic – when they do, they can still harm the environment.

An investigation by IE Napper into biodegradable carrier bags also found that over a three-year period, none of the materials were found to have broken down enough to reduce the effects of littering. So, although things are often labelled as being biodegradable, in reality, they may not be.

The science behind 'eco-friendly' glitter

Although there currently isn’t much research around the impacts of biodegradable glitter, evidence suggests that biodegradable microplastics may still cause similar ecological effects as traditional microplastics. 

One study found that glitters dubbed as ‘eco-friendly’ alternatives still had negative environmental impacts. The researchers concluded that “interestingly, the biodegradable glitters used in this study elicited stronger effects than the non-biodegradable PET glitter overall.”

Another important point about items claiming to be biodegradable is that often, testing is only carried out on a portion of the product, rather than the final item. Scientifically, they cannot say an item is biodegradable as the final product hasn’t been tested.

Body glitter

One study found that glitters dubbed as ‘eco-friendly’ alternatives still had negative environmental impacts

Other ways to get creative

If you really want to be eco-friendly this festival season, the best thing you can do is ditch the glitter completely.

To sparkle in the crowds, why not get creative with glitter-free eyeshadow and an alternative colour lipstick? You could also get creative with your clothing – check out your local charity shops for some unique items that, when combined, make you unapologetically you.

We hope you have a fabulous, eco-friendly festival season!