All that glitters is sustainable as scientists create non-toxic type

An environmentally friendly, biodegradable and vegan-friendly glitter has been made by scientists at the University of Cambridge and is inspired by butterfly wings and peacock feathers.

The non-toxic sparkly material is made of cellulose nanocrystals, tiny bundles of the same hardy natural fibre which forms the foundation of plants. The crystals appear to glisten and twinkle like glitter because they distort light via a process called “structural colour”, according to the academics.

The organic glitter is just as sparkly as the plastic alternative, the researchers who developed it claim.

The traditional type is a source of microplastics, tiny fragments which have been found on mountain ranges and at the bottom of the world’s oceans.

The sustainable version is said to be just as sparkly without causing harm

Credit: Benjamin Droguet/University of Cambridge

Experts are divided on the health dangers of microplastics, which have been found in human bodies, drinking water and the food we eat, but there is no debate over their existence.

Glitter and other products which include small pieces of plastic are a major source of microplastics and some scientists and campaigners have been calling for a ban.

Making the product out of a natural material avoids the pollution problem without depriving Christmas decoration manufacturers of their favourite shiny material.

The cellulose nanocrystal films prepared by the team can be made at scale using roll-to-roll processes like those used to make paper from wood pulp, which is the first time these specialist materials have ever been created on an industrial scale.

Senior author Professor Silvia Vignolini, of Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, said: “Conventional pigments, like your everyday glitter, are not produced sustainably.

‘It will be just as annoying – but it won’t harm the planet’

“They get into the soil, the ocean and contribute to an overall level of pollution. Consumers are starting to realise that while glitters are fun they also have real environmental harms.”

However, although the newfangled glitter is built to reduce pollution, the academics are confident it retains all the traditional qualities.

“It will be just as annoying – but it won’t harm the planet and is safe for your little ones,” Prof Vignolini said.

After producing the large-scale cellulose films, the researchers ground them into glitter-sized particles which are biodegradable, plastic-free and non-toxic.

According to the study, the process is far less energy intensive than conventional methods.

Prof Vignolini said: “Traditionally, effective pigment minerals have to be heated at temperatures as high as 800C to form pigment particles.

First author Benjamin Droguet, also of the Department of Chemistry, said: “When you consider the quantity of mineral-effect pigments that is produced worldwide, you realise that their use is harmful to the planet.

“We believe this product could revolutionise the cosmetics industry by providing a fully sustainable, biodegradable and vegan pigment and glitter.”

While more work is needed on the process, the researchers hope to form a spin-out company to make their pigments and glitters commercially available in the coming years.

The research, published in Nature Materials, was funded in part by the European Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.


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