Yes, Glitter

OMG I read on FB that glitter is destroying the world and we should ban it!!1!

As someone who cares a lot about the ocean, I initially thought that sounded reasonable. As someone with an education and access to the internet, I know that “sounds reasonable” isn’t enough. So I did some research, checked the numbers, and came to a conclusion: trying to ban glitter is a waste of time and effort. This is why:

Marine plastics, including microplastics, are a major problem in the ocean. So why are we still using glitter? Because

  1. We’re not wearing glitter to a beach (or forest) where there is serious MOOP danger! If you are reading this outdoors, don’t wear glitter while you read it.
  2. The marine plastics problem is way too big and serious to waste any more time talking about glitter.

Every year, 8 to 25 billion pounds of plastic enter the ocean. This is a problem because not only can plastics directly kill animals, they give off all sorts of nasty chemicals as they break down.

Every year, the world produces around ten millions pounds of glitter. If every single piece of glitter went into the ocean (it doesn’t), that would represent between 0.38 and 1.13% of the plastic pollution. If 10% of all glitter went into the ocean (still a crazy high estimate), that would represent less than 0.004% of all ocean plastics.

To put that in perspective, this is like trying to lose weight by removing a single grain of sugar from every cake you eat.

Don’t be fooled by slacktivism. Don’t be fooled by feel-good environmentalism. How can you really help? Participate in beach cleanups, recycle more plastic, use less plastic, don’t buy over-packaged products, don’t use disposable water bottles, don’t litter, and educate yourself and others.

The Calculations

This work, like all science, is subject to correction. If you have a better source for any of these numbers, or if you disagree with my calculation methods, please tell me about it!

How much plastic is there in the ocean?

The amount of plastic in the ocean can be estimated, but nobody really knows for sure. Fortunately, there’s a paper in Science (Jambeck et. al. 2015) that provides the estimate of 4.8 to 12.7 metric tons for the year 2010. One metric ton is 2204.62 pounds, so we’re talking between 8.8 and 26.4 billion pounds per year.

How much glitter is there in the ocean?

That’s hard to determine. What if every single piece of glitter that was manufactured each year went into the ocean?  Wikipedia says the world produced about 10 million pounds of glitter each year. I don’t like using Wikipedia as a source, but here is an independent calculation with the same conclusion. That would make glitter 0.004% to 0.009%.

That’s not very much, and it’s pretty unrealistic to imagine that all the glitter goes into the ocean. Let’s imagine that 10% goes in, which is still probably too high. In that case, the numbers are 0.0004% to 0.0009%. That’s less than one thousandth of a percent.

How much is that really?

To put these numbers in perspective, think about cake. Imagine that to lose weight, you decide to remove a single grain of sugar from each cake you eat.

A single grain of sugar is about 1 cubic millimeter. A cup holds 236,588 cubic millimeters, so let’s say that a cup holds 236,588 grains of sugar. A decent cake requires at least three cups, so that’s 709,764 grains. Removing a single grain of sugar would decrease your consumption by 0.00014%, which is the order of magnitude we’re dealing with here.

But doesn’t every little bit help?

In theory, maybe. Have you ever tried to save up for a vacation by putting a penny aside every day? After a decade, you’d have almost $37! It’s about as helpful as the cake example above.

But every minute (or dollar) that we spend trying to do something like ban glitter is a minute (or dollar) that could be spent doing something useful for the environment. Furthermore, people get “compassion fatigue” because there are only so many things you can care about at any given time. Choose wisely.

So what should I do?

If you’re going to be in a natural environment, don’t use plastic glitter. Just don’t. You can now buy biodegradable glitter online so that you can sparkly on the beach or in a forest or wherever it is you wear glitter.

The rest of the time, use common sense and don’t pour glitter down the drain (because then you risk clogging the drain, and nobody wants to deal with that).

Things that actually help: Participate in beach cleanups, recycle more plastic, use less plastic, don’t buy over-packaged products, don’t use disposable water bottles, don’t litter, and educate yourself and others.