All That Glitters Is…Plastic?! (Part 1)

What would the holidays, birthdays or even makeup be without glitter? Probably better off, as it turns out.  The modern day glitter that we all know and love has a much longer impact than the short time of enjoyment we get from its added sparkle. That’s because glitter is made out of plastic–Polyethylene Terephthalate, or PET, to be exact.

First, let’s get into a little bit of the history of glitter.

Humans have always been drawn to things that sparkle and shine. This can be evidenced in cave paintings from 40,000 to 10,000 BCE that have remaining flecks of mica, a natural mineral that is popular for the glimmer and sparkle it produces. Ancient Egyptians were also known to add extra shimmer to their make up by using mica and even crushed beetles. Clothing was never dull either as metals were sewn into fabric and thread. Crushed glass was also a popular material for decorative glitter until modern day plastic glitter was invented.

We can all thank Henry Ruschmann for inventing the glitter that we all know and love. Ruschmann invented the new glitter in 1934 in New Jersey. This new glitter was different because it was made out of plastic. Ruschmann’s glitter had a much greater variety of uses and quickly grew in popularity. Rumor has it that the U.S. military even considered using glitter in World War II to disrupt enemy radar. Ruschmann’s factory, Meadowbrook Glitter, is still in operation in Bernardsville, New Jersey today.


How is it made?

So now that we know what glitter is, how is it actually made? To start, PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) is metalized with aluminum to make the plastic “shiny”. The aluminum metalized PET then gets coated with titanium dioxide which determines the color of the glitter, and finally the glitter gets cut down to size. Most glitter ranges from 0.002 inches to 0.250 inches and every size in between. That was a very simplified version of the process. In reality, glitter companies put a lot of research and science and secrecy into their glitter formulas.

What is the Issue with Glitter?

Since the glitter is cut down to such a small size, it is considered a microplastic. Microplastics are not a type of plastic, but a form of plastic that measure less than 5mm in length.

Microplastics are becoming a real pollution problem in our oceans, lakes and streams. Since microplastics are so small, they are almost impossible to clean out of our waterways. Some scientists estimate that it would take over 1,000 years for PET to biodegrade into the Earth, although no one knows for sure how long it will take plastics to fully biodegrade.

We all know how impossible glitter can be to get out of our houses after a single use, it never seems to go away, now think about how that affects our environment when millions of people are using, spilling, dumping and disposing of glitter! While the glitter we use for decorations, makeup or anything else eventually goes away, it doesn’t truly ever disappear. As kids are going back to school and as we’re getting ready for the upcoming holidays, keep the lingering effect of glitter in mind!

Former Baykeeper intern Ally Antipow is a student at Rutgers University and is passionate about environmental policy and sustainability.