Glass beads are one of the most popular types of beads to use for making jewelry as well as decorating purses and other accessories.
But they have non-jewelry uses as well – depending on the type of bead.
They come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors to provide endless possibilities as to what you can make with them.
But with glass beads being so widely used, how eco-friendly are they?
Glass beads are somewhat eco-friendly, considering that they are made from sand and that most glass beads can be reused.
However, glass beads are not recyclable, and creating them uses a lot of energy as well.
In this article, we’ll explore the eco-friendliness of glass beads in more detail, as well as determine if there are better alternatives.
1. What Are Glass Beads Made Of?
Glass beads are primarily made of the same materials that other glass products are made of:
- Soda ash
Sand is the largest component that makes up glass, and the sand itself consists of tiny individual quartz crystals made from silica and oxygen.
To make the beads themselves, the above materials are melted at very high temperatures.
Depending on the type of glass that is being made, different types of sand are mixed together to create glass that has certain characteristics.
The temperature used to melt sand and other materials is around 1500°C (2700°F), so as you can imagine, this process uses quite a bit of energy.
Different metals can be added to the glass as it melts to create glass in certain colors.
Once the materials have been melted to create glass, it is shaped or poured into molds to create different sizes and styles of glass beads.
Sometimes, glass has to undergo more processing in order to be made more durable or give it other specific properties.
This is likely the case with glass beads since they undergo a bit of wear and tear when used for jewelry and accessory applications.
The glass beads are then allowed to cool, which gives them the appearance and texture that we typically think of glass as having.
2. What Are Glass Beads Used For?
We’ve already mentioned one of the most common uses of glass beads, which is in jewelry-making. Glass beads can be used to make bracelets, necklaces, and earrings.
Smaller glass beads, such as seed beads, are often threaded and used to decorate purses, home decor, and other accessories as well.
Flat glass beads which don’t have holes in them, are often used in floristry and added to clear vases, whether to decorate the vase or weigh it down. This type of glass bead is often used to decorate aquariums as well.
Small glass beads, again without holes in them, are also used to provide the weight to some weighted blankets or used as a filler for stuffed animals.
Finally, glass beads have industrial applications as well, in which fine glass beads are used for blasting surfaces in order to refinish them, a process known as glass bead blasting.
Glass bead blasting is very effective at removing paint, rust, and surface imperfections from hard surfaces such as cabinets or metal parts.
3. Are Glass Beads Eco-Friendly?
We’ve already mentioned that melting sand to make glass uses a large amount of energy.
And since the grid is still a far cry from being renewable and green, most of the energy used in glass manufacturing comes from burning fossil fuels.
In addition to them being non-renewable resources, burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which is a leading cause of climate change.
But despite that, glass beads are still somewhat eco-friendly considering that glass is primarily made from an abundant natural resource: sand.
However, it is important to note that sand is considered to be a non-renewable resource, so even though it is quite abundant, it could eventually run out.
This is because sand is mostly made from rocks that decompose through weathering, a process that can take thousands and even millions of years, especially in order to create a significant amount of sand.
For the most part, though, it will take a long time for existing sand to run out.
However, the more glass products that are made, including beads, the more sand that has to be used unless recycled glass is used instead.
4. Are Glass Beads Recyclable?
One of these types of glass is art glass, which is glass that is used primarily for crafting or art applications.
Glass beads are considered to be a type of art glass, considering that most of them are used for making jewelry or are at least made with different colors.
With that being said, certain types of glass such as art glass can’t be recycled due to being made with materials that could contaminate the recycling stream upon being broken down.
Plus, even if there are some glass beads that are recyclable, most of them are pretty small so it would take a lot of them in order to have a significant amount of recycled product.
But even though glass beads aren’t usually recycled, there are some types of glass beads that are made from recycled glass.
Recycled glass beads are made in pretty much the same way as regular glass beads, but instead of having to melt down sand, glass that is capable of being recycled is melted down instead.
That means that even though glass beads aren’t eco-friendly from a recyclability standpoint, you can use more eco-friendly versions of them that are made from recycled glass.
5. Are Glass Beads Sustainable?
Most of the time something has to be either made from a renewable resource or be able to be recycled in order to be sustainable.
Neither of these characteristics is technically true if the glass beads are made from raw materials since sand isn’t a renewable resource, and since we just learned that glass beads aren’t recyclable.
From that standpoint, glass beads are not sustainable. However, glass beads that are made from recycled glass are more sustainable than glass beads that are made from virgin glass.
6. Are Glass Beads Reusable?
The one saving grace for the sustainability of glass beads is that most of them are reusable, especially if they are used for jewelry or decoration, provided that they are not broken.
For example, if you have a bracelet made from glass beads and the bracelet breaks, you can salvage the beads and make a new bracelet. And, you can reuse flat glass beads over and over again as well in aquariums and vases.
The only glass beads that can’t be reused are those that are used for industrial processes such as blasting.
7. Are Glass Beads Durable?
Glass beads are generally durable, especially considering that some of them undergo special processing to make them more durable.
It is possible that the repeated dropping of them can cause the beads to chip, crack, or break.
But jewelry made with glass beads should last a long time provided that you are careful with it.
8. Are Glass Beads Toxic?
Some glass beads have been found to contain hazardous substances such as lead and arsenic.
Lead is sometimes added to glass during the melting process in order to give the molten glass more time to be “worked” and it can also give the glass an improved look upon cooling.
Arsenic is also used to eliminate bubbles when the glass is being melted.
Both lead and arsenic are carcinogens and can affect human development, and lead can affect reproduction as well.
9. Are Glass Beads Safe?
The main concern with lead and arsenic being in glass beads is with the use of them during glass bead blasting.
This is because the glass beads are often pulverized or damaged upon impact, which can produce dust that is then inhaled and can irritate the lungs or respiratory tract.
Lead can be potentially dangerous when used in jewelry because it can leach into the skin.
However, this is usually in low amounts and is less dangerous than if lead dust was inhaled as a result of blasting.
Are There Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Glass Beads?
If you’re concerned about the eco-friendliness of glass beads, you can be more eco-friendly and sustainable by switching to beads made from recycled glass.
Not only are these beads more eco-friendly, but many of them have a matte appearance similar to sea glass, so they can give jewelry and accessories a unique appearance.
The matte appearance is due to less processing being done during the recycling of the glass.
Even if glass beads are not recycled, they are slightly more eco-friendly than beads made from other materials.
For example, plastic beads are made from a non-renewable resource and may or may not be recyclable, depending on what they are made of.
Even polymer clay beads are not eco-friendly, since they are made from plastic (PVC) and not natural clay.
Read more about why you should avoid PVC here.
Glass beads are somewhat eco-friendly, considering that they are made from an abundant natural resource, are relatively durable, and can be reused.
However, that resource – sand – is not a renewable resource, and glass beads themselves can’t be recycled, in addition to requiring a lot of energy to make them in the first place.
Despite not being the most eco-friendly, glass beads are a better alternative to plastic and polymer clay beads.
For the most eco-friendly and sustainable glass beads, look for ones that are made out of recycled glass.