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All that glitters ... is not biodegradable

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Glitter is very hard to wash off — as parents, schoolteachers, and the fiercest Diva Royale performers know. Even after the final sparkle has been completely scrubbed away, glitter particles linger in the environment as microplastics, which are defined as fragments of any type of plastic that is less than 5 mm in length.

While microplastics and their environmental impact remain an emerging field of study, the pace at which these materials are entering the environment has raised concerns among the scientific community. Europe’s cosmetics industry alone sprinkles about 5500 tonnes (6063 tons) of carcinogenic, nonbiodegradable glitter into the environment every year.

Biodegradable glitter made from plant-based cellulose might allow environmentalists, if not art teachers, to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Courtesy of Benjamin Droguet.
Biodegradable glitter made from plant-based cellulose might allow environmentalists, if not art teachers, to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Courtesy of Benjamin Droguet.
Biodegradable glitter made from plant-based cellulose might allow environmentalists, if not art teachers, to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Courtesy of Benjamin Droguet.


Biodegradable glitter made from plant-based cellulose might allow environmentalists, if not art teachers, to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Courtesy of Benjamin Droguet.

In response, researchers at the University of Cambridge explored a solution that might allow environmentalists, if not art teachers, to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The researchers are developing a sustainable, nontoxic, and biodegradable glitter made from plant-based cellulose nanocrystals that bend visible light to create vivid colors using the same phenomenon that gives butterfly wings and peacock feathers their vibrancy.

The team prepared films of the nanocrystals using high-volume roll-to-roll processes similar to those used to make paper from wood pulp. By optimizing the cellulose solution and the coating parameters, the team manipulated the nanocrystals’ self-assembly process to achieve a desired visual affect. Then, it was only a matter of grinding the films into particles that delivered all of the sparkle and drama of conventional plastic-based glitter.

While the new type of glitter may help to mitigate the environmental impact of microplastics, the more burning question for many will be whether the sparkly stuff will be any easier to clean up.

The answer, unfortunately, is no. Science has its limits.

“It will be just as annoying,” said Silvia Vignolini, a professor in Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry and a member of the research team. “But it won’t harm the planet and [it will be] safe for your little ones.”

Photonics Spectra
Feb 2022
Lighter Side

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