No matter where you are in the world, glitter symbolises celebration. Whether it’s slathered all over homemade cards or donned during music festivals, glitter is renowned for drawing attention.
The origins of glitter go far beyond the 1934 invention by an American machinist: cave paintings from the Upper Palaeolithic period showcase specks of red, black and white mica. Ancient Egyptians also used crushed-up beetles to create a glitter-like substance in times of celebration – yep, glitter has been an extension of human happiness for a long while.
And while the human race is still big on having a good time, the rise of sustainability has thrown a bit of a spanner into the works for the plight of glitter. Mostly made from a combination of plastic and aluminium, glitter is a microplastic – and if you haven’t lived under a rock over the last five years, you’ll know that microplastics are one of society’s modern day public enemies. The larger issue is that, unlike other microplastics which make up bigger plastic items like water bottles, glitter is sold as is. Glitter is merely sparkling, dyed microplastics – in this harmful format, it’s small and sticky enough to find a home anywhere. And it does.
While most of us realise the harm of microplastics, we’re only just beginning to face the scale of their impact. In October of last year, CSIRO – Australia’s national science agency – came to the earth-shattering conclusion that there are 9.25m to 15.87m tons of microplastics embedded in the seafloor. Microplastic has also been found in some obscure places like Arctic ice and the bellies of humans (yep – we’re estimated to ingest about five grams of microplastic every week).
Photo: David Pereiras
Trisia Farrelly, an environmental anthropologist from Massey University in New Zealand, told Science Line that glitter is one of those ‘avoidable, unnecessary, nonrenewable and non-recyclable’ things that should be ‘avoided and discouraged’. She has been campaigning for the phasing out of glitter over the last half a decade or so.
To Farrelly’s delight, toward the end of the 2010s glitter began to be kicked to the curb by schools, events and the wider global community. Studies like the one mentioned above became harder to ignore, and the events industry began looking toward using less single-use plastic as a whole.
So when in 2019, organisers of the iconic Sydney Mardi Gras announced they’d be phasing out glitter, the move was expected – and celebrated. Lumped in with the ban of single-use plastics, glitter at Mardi Gras was swapped for ‘fairy lights, fluorescent paints and fabrics and other light-reflecting materials’ according to an ABC News article on the ban.
Terese Casu, chief executive of the event at the time, said Mardi Gras had previously used about three tonnes of imported glitter from China every year.
“That goes in the gutter, it ends up in our oceans, our fish eat it, you find it in crab shells and oysters. We must be responsible and make really urgent changes,” Casu said.
And while the rest of Australia’s event industry is still slowly catching up (and weathering the storm of lockdown after lockdown), it’s worth considering the environmentally friendly glitter alternatives we have available. We know glitter is hands down awful – that doesn’t mean we can’t kick back.
Sixty festivals in the UK announced their plan to make the switch from PET-made glitter to eco-glitter by the end of 2021. But while biodegradable and sustainable glitter alternatives have been historically touted as a safe alternative, new research from the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge suggests that may not be completely true. Eco-glitter has a similar detrimental impact on lakes and rivers as its micro-plastic counterpart, with researchers finding even seemingly safe biodegradable glitter made of modified regenerated cellulose (MRC) retrieved from eucalyptus trees still has a negative effect on biodiversity, especially primary producers.
For organisers looking to level up and commit to a more sustainable future, Mardi Gras has paved the way for you. From neon lights to fluorescent paints, there are so many ways to light up the night on a set piece, backdrop, or parade float, without the use of glitter.
Neon lighting is extremely bright against dark backdrops, providing the perfect glow for any event in so many different bright colours. The more modern LED variations of neon lighting are very energy efficient, and the application possibilities are endless between the flexibility of tube, rope and strip lighting varieties.
In addition to neon lighting, there’s countless other ways to use lighting to create stunning visual effects. From laser displays to fairy lights, motion-synced lighting, color-changing textile panels, or moving lights with custom gobos, there’s so much more lighting effects can do to a set piece than little ole glitter can.
Video and projection mapping technology has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. You’d have to be living under a rock if you haven’t seen images of creative and artistic displays projected onto buildings like the Sydney Opera House and Customs House during Vivid Sydney.
And with 3D technology making new waves across installations around the world, the possibilities for video and projection technology replacing traditional sets and backdrops in the future will be innovating.
Technological solutions can be pricey, so great alternatives to glitter that are more on par pricewise would include sparkly and shimmer fabrics that can be wrapped around set pieces and can even be repurposed or upcycled afterwards.
Sequinned fabrics, whilst similar in composition, are still a step-up from glitter due the larger sequin discs being easier to find and dispose of than micro bits of glitter. Foil and iridescent fabrics would be even better though.
Paper & Foil
Reflective papers and foil in metallic or iridescent colours can also provide the same effect as glitter without the use of micro-plastics. Vinyl, mylar, and even crumpled up aluminium foil can provide vibrant sparkling effects, especially when paired with some clever lighting.
Thin Flexible Plastics
Brightly coloured thin flexible plastics that are also reflective are another alternative that, whilst still made of plastic, are large in shape so far less likely to end up in the environment than rogue bits of glitter.
Semi-transparent hard flexible, acrylic or soft film sheets can be found in many fluorescent colours and look great when backlit. Even a crumpled garbage bag or plastic tablecloth can look great under lighting – just don’t forget to recycle or upcycle!
Mirror acrylic comes in a rainbow of colours as well, not just “mirror silver”, and reflects colours and lights from the surrounding environment splendidly. And mirror acrylic isn’t just for disco balls – neatly tiled on plywood flats, or arranged like a mosaic, there are so many creative ways to utilise mirrored materials too.
Who doesn’t love a bit of neon and fluorescent paint!? So long as you include a little ultraviolet light in your rigging plan, florescent paint is vibrant, affordable and can be painted over for the next job – making it an appropriately sustainable solution for temporary events.
Whilst water-based acrylic paint is considered safe to humans, most paints in general are not so kind to the environment. So, if you choose to use paint for your set-construction, make sure you are disposing of the paint waste in the most environmentally friendly way possible, and as per local regulations. Don’t let acrylic paint waste go down the drain into the waterways!
Don’t forget your patrons too!
Another bold way to take charge of glitter at your event is to encourage your punters to avoid it, too. While it’s impossible to guarantee a completely glitter-free space, why not proactively steer your attendees in a different direction? By providing access to glow in the dark paint, LED swag and even things like glow sticks, punters won’t even think of the glitter they’re missing out on.
And while eco-glitter still isn’t perfect, it’s certainly a few steps up from the shiny plastic glitter that we were raised to love – and it gets the conversation started. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, so if forcing traders to only sell eco-glitter on site is your only option, it’s the best way to go!
Has your business or event successfully kicked glitter to the curb? We’d love to hear about it!
All Photos: Unsplash unless specified otherwise