Are Glow Sticks Bad for the Environment? 6 Crucial Facts

Are Glow Sticks Bad for the Environment

published on October 16th, 2022

Since glow sticks are pretty small, you might think they have a small environmental impact.

However, they can quickly build up.

Glow sticks are not good for the environment since they’re made of plastic, which is non-renewable, and there are concerns about some of the chemicals in them.

Here’s everything you need to know about glow sticks and the environment. 

1. What Are Glow Sticks Made Of?

Each glow stick brand is different, but generally, they have similar materials.

The outer container of a glow stick is plastic; they usually contain a glass vial on the inside, which breaks when the stick is snapped to trigger a chemical reaction.

The glass contains a hydrogen peroxide solution and salicylate, which is dissolved in dimethyl phthalate. 

Outside the glass, there is usually a solution containing an ester, commonly dibutyl phthalate, which is dissolved in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon.

Some glow sticks contain diphenyl oxalate. There is also a fluorescent dye.

For example, red glow sticks are usually colored with rhodamine B, blue with 9,10-diphenylanthracene, and green with 1-chloro-9,10-diphenylanthracene.

2. Are Glow Sticks Bad for the Environment?

Glow sticks are bad for the environment.

First, they are made of non-renewable materials. Both plastic and glass are non-renewable.

Plastic is sourced via mining which causes pollution and environmental destruction.

Around 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions have been traced back to plastic production. 

Glow sticks are single-use items, so while they’re small, they can quickly add up.

This also means there is always a demand for new glow sticks, which require more energy and resources. 

Aside from being used for entertainment purposes, similar to sparklers or sky lanterns, glow sticks are also used to attract fish.

If not disposed of properly, these can contribute to plastic pollution. 

Glow sticks could potentially break down into microplastics in the ocean.

This is harmful to aquatic life that mistakes plastic particles for food and can even be fatal when they cannot get adequate nutrition because their stomachs are full of indigestible items.

Microplastics can also easily enter the human food chain when people eat fish; microplastics may even be harmful to human health too and cause inflammation or have adverse effects on the immune system. 

There may also be environmental concerns about the chemicals in glow sticks.

Glow sticks also usually contain synthetic dyes. 

Rhodamine B is bad for the environment and for humans who come into contact with it; it is believed to be toxic, mutagenic, and even carcinogenic. 

However, it is not clear if there is enough of this substance in glow sticks to have a significant effect, so it’s best to be careful when using glow sticks.

Contact with 9,10-Diphenylanthracene can cause irritation, but again, it’s not clear if there is enough in glow sticks to have a substantial impact, so it’s best to handle them with care.

In small amounts – such as in a glow stick – hydrogen peroxide does not seem to be bad for the environment. 

When exposed to heat or certain compounds, it breaks down into water and oxygen.

In large amounts, this substance may be harmful to humans and the environment.

In the context of hydrogen peroxide in sunscreen, it is detrimental to phytoplankton – since phytoplankton consumes carbon dioxide, which is vital in the fight against climate change, this is a cause for concern.

When it comes to other substances like diethyl phthalate, it may be broken down into carbon dioxide by microorganisms.

In waterways, it may bio-accumulate in marine life – and it may be toxic to some fish.

It’s always important to consider how the chemicals in glow sticks interact with each other when determining their environmental impact.

For example, when the hydrogen peroxide interacts with the ester, it oxidizes and creates phenol and peroxy acid ester – which decomposes into more phenol and a cyclic peroxide compound.

The cyclic peroxide compound breaks down into carbon dioxide, which triggers the electrons in the fluorescent dye to release energy, which creates the glow effect. 

3. Are Glow Sticks Toxic if Broken?

Broken glow sticks are not believed to be harmful in small doses since there is not a lot of liquid in a singular glow stick.

However, that doesn’t mean they’re good for the environment or are completely non-toxic. 

Generally, when you snap glow sticks, the chemicals do not escape from the plastic, so they do not spill; however, accidents can happen. 

Some of the ingredients in glow sticks may be harmful by themselves prior to the reaction, while some byproducts may also be harmful.

As mentioned earlier, some of the dyes used in glow sticks are toxic. 

Dibutyl phthalate is believed to be toxic to humans and animals.

They can irritate the skin, and eyes, cause bladder stones and disrupt the endocrine system.

Research on mice found they impacted reproduction. 

Salicylates may be toxic to small aquatic life, such as algae and daphnids. 

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are also believed to be toxic.

Phenol does not persist in the environment, but it can be somewhat toxic as it may impair the growth of larvae.

Peroxy acid ester is considered corrosive, but it is not clear if a single glow stick would produce enough to be harmful.

Research found that when solution from used glow sticks was applied to rats for four days, they experienced inflammation, as well as erythema, edema, and vesicles.

The research also noted that compounds in glow sticks were toxic to human cell cultures.

4. Are Glow Sticks Reusable?

Glow sticks are usually not renewable. 

You can’t turn them on and off, so they remain fluorescent until the chemical reaction is complete. 

Some people claim that you can slow down the reaction and get longer use from glow sticks by placing them in the freezer, but this doesn’t mean they’re actually reusable.

After the chemical reaction is complete, nothing will happen if you snap them again.

There are LED sticks powered by batteries that can be reused, but these are not the same as typical glow sticks. 

5. Are Glow Sticks Recyclable?

Glow sticks are not recyclable. 

While glass and plastic may be recyclable individually, you can’t separate all the chemical components of a glow stick.

A recycling facility wouldn’t have the means to process materials this size anyway.

So, they will need to go in your general waste bin. 

6. Are Glow Sticks Biodegradable?

Glow sticks are not biodegradable because plastic and glass are not biodegradable

While some of the substances in glow sticks – like hydrogen peroxide – are biodegradable, they do not leave the glow stick unless it is broken.

But, it is not advised to spill the contents of a glow stick since some of the substances are harmful and cannot be separated from any non-toxic components. 

However, there have been moves to make more sustainable glow sticks, which are powered by bioluminescence, meaning the light is created by enzymes and water.

These glow sticks are said to be biodegradable in a home compost bin.

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