Building the World

WATER: Glitter Litter – Getting Better


Holidays invite sequins and sparkle. Image by Irson Kudikove, 2010. Public domain wikimedia. Included with appreciation.

Holidays like New Year’s Eve invite festive attire, often sparkling from head to toe. The origin of sequins reaches back to ancient gold coins, worn by the wealthy for special occasions. In fact, the word “sequin” comes from the Italian “zecchino” referring to the gold coins minted in Venice, and before than from the Arabic “sikka” meaning a minted coin. One may still see some coin-bedecked costumes in certain forms of dance. No wonder sequins are now associated with lavish occasions.

“50 Zecchini coins from the reign of Paulo Renier, Doge of Venice, circa 1779.” Wikimedia, public domain. Included with appreciation to numismatic collection, national museum.

But now we manufacture a very different kind of sequin for dress-up attire. Did you know that most sequins and glitter are themselves dressed? They are coated with reflective plastic that produces the desired shine. Such glitter quickly turns to litter. On the dance floor, tiny sequins shake loose. In dramatic hair styling, glitter sprinkles the comb and later washes into the shower – and the water supply. Unlike some plastics that are carefully monitored for dangerous chemicals and strictly regulated for recyclability, fashion sequins and glitter are not subject to such rules: in fact, most contain toxins.

Steppin’ Out in Style? Try algae. Image: “Sequined Shoe” by sunshinecity. Wikimedia. Included with appreciation.

So, is there a sustainable way to sparkle? Yes!

First responsibility is with designers and garment manufacturers:

Elissa Brunato introduced an innovation: Bio Iridescent Sequins made of biodegradable cellulose. Working with RISE Research Institute of Sweden’s material scientists Hjalmar Granberg and Tiffany Abitbol, Brunato found a tree-based cellulose that contains a natural polymer structure reflecting light. The production process involves pouring natural liquid cellulose into a mold to which colors can be added. From the city of London Bridge, designers like Brunato, and Stella McCartney, are among those building a different kind of bridge – through the Future Materials Bank.

Phillip Lim and Charlotte McCurdy produce marine micro algae to form a natural sequin. Introducing a petroleum-free sequin dress made with bio-plastic sequins formed from algae, Lim and McCurdy work with One X One by Slow Factory to create carbon-neutral materials for fashion. Circular fashion is a term often heard: here, algae form the material that later return to the earth, biodegrading to nourish the planet. Lim found inspiration in pearls and crystals, sparkles and shines of nature, and now finds nature the source of fashionable sparkle.

Anuje Farhung, founder of the fashion brand House of Farhung, offers couture in Pakistan and globally with luxury, formal, and bridal fashions. Farhung studied at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, USA, and worked with fashion house Oscar De La Renta before founding her label offering sustainable sparkle. When Anuje collaborated, in 2020, with Sarah Khan from the National Centre of Excellent in Geology at the University of Peshawar, they selected red algae for their source of luminous fashion.

Second responsibility is with the consumer. While 40% of shoppers surveyed by Oxfam said they’d purchase glittering clothing for the holidays, most confessed they would wear it only a few times. As many as 1.7 million items of sparkling clothing end up in landfills each year. Once in the landfill, sequins and glitter tend to dissolve into a toxic ooze called “landfill leachate.”

Avoid landfill leachate – glitter responsibly. Image: “Glitter Slime” by Slime 123 Globex” by Barbara Rayman, 2017. CC4.0 Wikimedia. Included with appreciation.

As you plan for New Year celebrations, or perhaps a coming party, prom, wedding, or special occasion, if garment manufacturers offered sequins and sparkle at a price slightly higher but much more sustainable, would you purchase glitter that doesn’t litter?

Brunato, Elissa.

Farhung, Anuje. “Fulbright Women Podcasts: Anuje Farhung.”

Irfan, Anmol. “Iridescent algae: eco-friendly sequins in Pakistan.” Courier. 23 March 2022.

Lim, Phillip.

McCurdy, Charlotte.

One X One.

Pinjing He, Fan Lü. “Municipal solid waste (MSW) landfill: A source of microplastics? – Evidence of microplastics in landfill leachate.” Water Research. Volume 159, 1 August 2019, pages 38-45.

Singh Khadka, Navin. “Five ways sequins add to plastic pollution.” BBC 26 December 2022.

Springwise. “Sustainalbe Sequins Made From Cellulose.” 25 September 2019.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Un

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