Glitter can add some sparkle to all kinds of occasions, but for many people, it’s most closely associated with Christmas.
Whether it’s glued to greeting cards and gift wrap, sprinkled on Christmas trees or used as a table decoration, glitter is synonymous with Christmas — and always has been since its invention in the 1930s.
However, it’s a perfect storm for environmental damage. Glitter is a single-use plastic, it can make recyclable materials (especially paper) unsuitable for recycling, and it can contaminate land and water if it escapes into the environment.
It’s no surprise that many festival organisers have banned glitter at their events. Yet when Christmas comes around, millions of us reach for the glitter to add that sparkle to the season.
What is glitter?
The modern concept of ‘glitter’ dates from America in the 1930s, when machinist Henry F Ruschmann would cut photo films, leading to fragments of cellulose dropped out of his machine.
His employees started to collect the sparkly fragments to sprinkle on their Christmas trees, and the rest is history.
With glass and metal in short supply during World War II, Ruschmann started making glitter from ground plastic.
Plastic glitter remains popular to the present day, but consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the damage it can cause to the environment.
Why is glitter bad for the environment?
Glitter itself is harmful to the environment, as it takes a long time to break down, contributing to the amount of microplastics polluting habitats, food chains, waterways and oceans.
Microplastics eventually break down into nanoplastics, but that doesn’t remove them from the environment — it arguably makes them even more harmful.
Find out more about microplastics and nanoplastics, and the pollution they cause in the oceans and environment, in our guide to Everything you need to know about nanoplastics.
There are also secondary effects, because materials covered in glitter cannot be recycled. This means that a single glittery Christmas card or sparkly gift bag can contaminate an entire load of paper recycling, so that it must be sent to landfill instead of being turned into new paper products.
An incredible one billion Christmas cards are thrown away each year – equivalent to 33 million trees’ worth of paper, according to the Environment Agency.
Glitter prevents those cards from being recycled, meaning more trees must be felled to manufacture the following year’s greetings cards.
PET glitter is made from polyethylene terephthalate and is long-lasting in the environment. Generally speaking, biodegradable plastics must break down relatively quickly without leaving microplastic particles behind. PET does not meet these criteria; therefore, PET glitter is generally classified as non-biodegradable.
There are environmentally friendly glitter alternatives to PET, such as mica glitter and aluminium-coated cellulose, both of which provide a sparkly effect but break down much faster and more completely once disposed of.
Re-thinking our consumption to help the planet
We can all reduce our consumption of non-essential products like PET glitter. There are plenty of good alternatives, including the environmentally friendly glitters mentioned above. Coloured paper confetti is also an option to put in gift boxes and to fall out of greetings cards when they are opened.
In general, it’s surprisingly easy to prioritise recyclable packaging. Glitter-free greetings cards and gift wrap with no foil or metallic finish can all usually be recycled in with your paper and card – if you’re not sure, play it safe and try to avoid putting anything into your paper recycling that might contaminate the batch.
Getting festive with environmentally friendly glitter
Environmentally friendly glitter and eco-friendly wrapping paper can help you to celebrate a glitter-free Christmas — or at least, a Christmas free from harmful PET glitter.
Major retailers throughout the UK have taken steps in recent years to support households who want to embrace a glitter-free Christmas.
But who has done best? If you’re in the north, you’re likely to be rooting for Asda (headquartered in Leeds) and Morrisons (headquartered in Bradford), regions served by Commercial Waste.
Meanwhile, in the south, Sainsbury’s (London) and Tesco (Welwyn Garden City) are the local heroes — so who is doing the most to eliminate plastic, glitter and microplastics from their seasonal greetings cards and gift wrap?
Which retailers have gone glitter-free?
No matter which of the UK’s biggest supermarkets you shop at, there should be a good number of glitter-free Christmas cards and gift wraps available, as they have all announced a commitment to cut microplastics (including glitter) in recent years.
In 2020, Asda announced a “greener Christmas” with a range of plastic-free cards, wrap and gift bags, saving an estimated 66 tonnes of plastic.
The retailer said: “Continuing its commitments to helping customers to reduce, reuse and recycle more, the range features glitter-free cards, wrap and gift bags, which would in previous years have contained small particles of plastic.”
For 2022, Morrisons pledged to make Christmas “100% plastic-free and pocket-friendly” with its first completely plastic-free Christmas gift wrap range. However, the supermarket is not lagging behind the competition.
Morrisons explained: “This is in addition to the removal of glitter and plastic from paper wrap, crackers, and cards in previous years, which has reduced plastic in its range by over 150 tonnes over the past three years.”
Sainsbury’s has made an impressive commitment to cutting plastic not only from Christmas, but also Easter and even its Pancake Day packaging.
In 2021, Sainsbury’s reported: “Christmas and Halloween saw a combined effort to cut back the supermarket’s plastic in a large range of festive decorations including eco-friendly crackers, cutting all glitter from Sainsbury’s own-brand Christmas boxes and cards, and the removal of multiple environmentally unfriendly plastic Halloween decorations, adding up to a total reduction of 1.9 tonnes of plastic.”
Finally, in 2020 Tesco removed more than 20 million pieces of plastic from its Christmas range, including the removal of glitter from all single-use wrapping paper, gift bags, Christmas cards, and crackers.
Tesco Quality Director Sarah Bradbury said at the time: “It is an absolute priority of ours to remove and reduce the amount of plastic in our stores to the minimum and ensure everything we use is recycled.”