Is Biodegradable Glitter Safe for Birds? (+ Eco-Friendly Alternatives)

Microplastics, much like glitter, are getting everywhere and they’re impossible to clean. 

In 1960 less than 5% of seabirds were ingesting plastic.

But by 2015, 90% of seabirds were found to have plastic in their stomachs. 

If we continue at this rate, virtually every bird will be consuming plastic by 2050. 

This horrifying microplastic emergency has left us scrambling to find biodegradable alternatives that will break down in the environment before they can become inadvertent bird food.

But are these biodegradable options the real deal?

Or clever marketing greenwashing? 

In this post, we’ll examine biodegradable glitter and its impact on birds and other wildlife. 

Is Glitter Dangerous for Birds?

Yes, glitter can be dangerous for birds and other wildlife because it’s microplastic. 

Microplastics contaminate water and damage entire ecosystems. 

Because glitter is so small and breaks down into even smaller parts, it’s nearly impossible to control and clean it out of ecosystems.

Even if you don’t directly pollute, glitter will make its way into the ecosystem when you wash it. 

After going down the drain, it goes to a wastewater treatment plant where it slips through filters and goes into rivers, oceans, and even back into our drinking water.  

A study from June 2020 shows us that not even our protected wilderness areas and national parks are safe from the microplastic problem.

Over 1000 metric tons of microplastics are making their way into U.S. national parks, carried by wind and rain.

Yes, it’s raining plastic. 

Microplastics, like glitter, can make their way into a bird’s digestive tract in the water and through the food they eat – like worms, insects, and fish.

Most plastics are synthesized from petroleum and are therefore toxic when ingested.

They can secrete harmful chemicals into the bloodstream and cause a wide array of health problems.  

Researchers at Cardiff University found that one species of bird, the dipper, was ingesting up to 200 fragments of plastic per day.

Is Biodegradable Glitter Safe for Birds?

Put simply, we don’t know. 

There haven’t been many scientific, peer-reviewed studies done on biodegradable glitter and its impact on the environment. 

And there have been no studies relating directly to biodegradable glitter’s impact on birds. 

It simply hasn’t been at the top of the list of priorities for environmental researchers, because glitter makes up less than 1% of microplastic pollution.  

But one recent study, led by Dr. Dannielle Green of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, found that biodegradable glitter is not better for the environment. 

Her study analyzed the effects of glitter on freshwater ecosystems. She studied both traditional, PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) plastic glitter as well as biodegradable MRC (modified regenerated cellulose) glitter.

Dr. Green states:

we found that both conventional and alternative glitters can have a serious ecological impact on aquatic ecosystems within a short period.”

Both types of glitter harmed primary food producers at the base of the food web.

The presence of glitter reduced the levels of chlorophyll and therefore reduced the presence of microalgae. 

Microalgae is vital to life on earth because of the role it plays in producing oxygen, reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide, and creating food for aquatic ecosystems. 

In fact, the biodegradable glitter had an added negative effect – it encouraged the growth of an invasive species – New Zealand mud snails. 

Is Biodegradable Glitter Safe for Other Animals?

Because of the lack of research, it’s hard to say how dangerous biodegradable glitter is for animals. 

PET glitter has sharp edges that can theoretically tear the digestive system of small fish, but it’s unknown on what scale this takes place, and whether MRC glitter can have the same effect. 

Based on Dr. Green’s research, we simply know both PET and MRC glitter disrupt the food chain in freshwater environments. 

Marine biologist Richard Thompson says there is clear evidence that microplastics are harmful to wildlife and people alike.

However, there is a “clear lack of evidence specifically on glitter.” 

Of the 500 fish that Thompson has examined, one-third contain microplastic particles. But he hasn’t found any glitter to date.

What Is Biodegradable Glitter Made of?

The most prominent kind of biodegradable glitter on the market is MRC glitter. 

MRC Glitter: Plant Cellulose from Eucalyptus Trees

Modified regenerated cellulose (MRC) glitter is produced for both crafts and cosmetics.

It’s made of cellulose, a plant-based film. This film is extracted from the fibers of the eucalyptus tree.

Sounds natural at first, but the problem is that to give the plant base its shape and reflective shimmer, it’s coated in plastic and aluminum… two non-biodegradable substances. 

Producers of MRC glitter and their retailers promote the idea that eucalyptus cellulose glitter is far more responsible than full-fledged plastic glitter because of its plant base.

But unfortunately, the plant base is wearing two non-biodegradable coats

How Long Does It Take for Biodegradable Glitter to Decompose?

According to the FAQ pages for various MRC glitter retailers, it takes MRC glitter around 28-90 days to degrade under ideal conditions.

Yet these same retailers openly acknowledge their glitter contains aluminum and plastic

Nor have their claims been tested by objective researchers.

Dr. Green’s research, however, showed negative environmental effects of MRC glitter and PET glitter after only 36 days. 

Is Biodegradable Glitter Really Biodegradable?

Despite what retailers would have you believe, we must conclude that “biodegradable” MRC glitter is not 100% biodegradable because of its non-biodegradable ingredients – plastic and aluminum. 

Is Biodegradable Glitter Edible?

Only edible glitter is edible. 

Many brands of ‘cake dust’ and ‘decorative glitter’ have emerged on the market – but these are for decorative use and are not edible. 

The FDA issued a warning in 2016 because non-edible decorative dust was being promoted as a food decoration. 

These decorative glitters are often made of non-toxic plastic. But just because something is ‘non-toxic’ doesn’t mean that it is safe for consumption. 

Biodegradable glitter is no different. It is not edible because it contains plastic and aluminum. 

Edible glitter is hard to come by, but not impossible to find on the shelves.

It will contain 100% edible ingredients such as sugar, acacia (gum arabic) carnauba wax, maltodextrin, cornstarch, and color additives. 

Is Biodegradable Glitter Better Than Normal Glitter?

No. There is no ‘better’ glitter on the market at the moment. 

MRC biodegradable glitter: 

  • Contains non-biodegradable ingredients
  • Is more expensive than normal glitter
  • Has a proven negative impact on freshwater ecosystems

Is There Such a Thing As Eco-Friendly Glitter

Looking at biodegradable glitter’s ingredients and also Dr. Green’s research, the answer is no.

Right now, there is no such thing as eco-friendly glitter

Researchers employed by the beauty and craft industry are working hard to come up with glitter with 100% natural ingredients. 

But until they do, for those of us with an eco-conscience, the best thing to do is steer clear of glitter altogether and search for less-shimmery alternatives. 

What Are Eco-friendly Alternatives to Glitter?

Because nothing naturally reflects light quite like the aluminum/plastic coat on glitter, we need to get creative and keep an open mind when coming up with alternatives. 

For Crafting With Kids

1. Flowers and Flower Petals

For fun crafts with kids, you can head outside to collect the raw materials.

Pick colorful small flowers and pick petals off of larger flowers.

It isn’t going to sparkle, but you are going to get a naturally colorful mix.

2. Recycled Glass Beads

These beads get their color from the glass bottles they’re recycled from.

From beach glass to Coca-Cola and Guinness bottles.

You can buy recycled glass beads to use for crafting and decoration.

For Celebrations

3. Leaf Confetti

To make your confetti, you only need a hole-punch and a bunch of leaves.

Punch holes in the leaves and you’re ready to celebrate any occasion with a fun splash of guilt-free confetti!

Get examples here.

4. Biodegradable Confetti

Bits of flowers, herbs, mica, and compostable paper!

Biodegradable confetti retailers are popping up and making our celebrations a lot greener without sacrificing the cute confetti pics. 

But be careful not to trust just anyone claiming to sell biodegradable confetti.

Many biodegradable confetti retailers use “biodegradable” glitter, which we learned is a no-go.

To play it safe, check out The Confetti Bar.

For Makeup

5. Natural Mica

Mica is a naturally occurring mineral known as ‘nature’s glitter’

Mica crystals are light, soft, and easily ground into a sparkly powder.

Because of its shimmer, mica is a common ingredient in makeup and other beauty products.

Natural mica itself shows no evidence of negative side effects when applied to our skin, and no known negative side effects for the environment. 

But when mixed with harmful synthetic dyes or other plastic ingredients, it could lead to skin problems for the wearer.

Not to mention, mica raises staggering ethical concerns for how it is sourced. 

Most sheet mica comes from India, where investigations have uncovered troubling child labor abuses and unsafe mining conditions.  

Make sure to purchase ethically-sourced mica in natural colors, without added dyes.

How Do I Dispose of Glitter Correctly?

Glitter cannot be recycled, so the best thing you can do is reuse it or upcycle it.

Use a strong adhesive to decorate with it. Glue it to something you plan on keeping for a long time.

If that isn’t an option and your glitter is bound for landfill, wait to throw it away until you have a non-recyclable sealed container that you’re also going to throw away.

And place the glitter in the sealed container. 

You could also mix it with glue or resin.

The point is to fix it in one place, where it cannot be carried by the wind or rain into water systems or green areas.

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