Countries across the world are starting to ban some microplastics. Like microbeads — the tiny pieces of plastic used in soap and face washes.
This time of year in New Orleans, it’s almost raining plastic, from beads to glitter. Lots of glitter. But what happens to all that sparkly stuff after it washes away? WWNO’s Travis Lux took a look at the environmental consequences of glitter.
This is my first Mardi Gras in the city. My friends told me, “If you wanna know about glitter, you gotta go to Jefferson Variety.”
It’s small warehouse, tucked away on a quiet street in Jefferson. Inside it’s full of bright colors. Fabric, beads, glitter — they’ve got it all.
The glitter section is a big wooden shelf. All the colors and sizes of glitter you could dream of are packaged in plastic containers.
I bump into Ana Castro at the shelf as she’s assessing her options. She tells me about her costume this year: a shrimp that plays golf. A golf shrimp.
“Pun intended,” she says, laughing.
Like last year, Castro expects to wear lots of glitter on Mardi Gras.
“I was about to walk out the door and people were just throwing glitter at me,” she says of last year’s festivities.
But what happens to all that glitter once it hits the ground? Or washes down the shower drain?
If it falls onto the street outside it’s washed down the catch basins and into Lake Pontchartrain.
If it washes off in the shower, it’ll snake through underground pipes to a treatment plant. The Sewerage and Water Board treats the dirty water, then dumps it back into the Mississippi River. So most of that glitter likely ends up in back in the river.
So what about the environment?
To answer that question I called up Mark Benfield, a biological oceanographer at LSU. He’s been studying the proliferation of plastic in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the Mississippi River.
Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are five millimeters or smaller in diameter. “About the size of a Mardi Gras bead or smaller,” he says.
Benfield says there hasn’t been much research on the environmental consequences of glitter, specifically, but, “we know a lot about the adverse impacts of microplastics in the environment,” he says, “and glitter would have the same properties.” In other words: small, commonly mistaken for food by fish, and vehicles for harmful pollutants.
The surface chemistry of microplastics is such that it tends to attract certain organic pollutants — things like herbicides and pesticides that are already in the Mississippi.
When a fish eats the microplastic, it absorbs those pollutants into its body. If a bigger fish eats that fish, the bigger fish absorbs the pollutants, too. And on and on up the food chain until the microplastic could be consumed by humans. That process is called biomagnification.
A few countries have banned certain types of microplastics, like microbeads. Those are the tiny plastic balls used in some soaps and toothpastes. The UK just passed a ban last month. The U.S ban is being phased in over the next couple of years. Right now, there’s no ban on glitter, specifically.
Glitter is widely used cosmetic products, “and certainly a lot of it is used in New Orleans during Carnival,” Benfield adds.
Benfield thinks a ban would be a good idea, noting that there are several companies that make biodegradable glitter.
“So certainly we have the technology to make alternatives that are environmentally friendly,” he says.
So yes, glitter is bad for the environment. It’s a magnet for pollutants and gets eaten by fish that pass those pollutants up the food chain. But it’s not banned and it’s not leaving the store shelves anytime soon. So for now it’s up to each of us to decide how we get our shine on.
Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Foundation for Louisiana, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and local listeners.