There's something about glitter that feels inherently magical, be it the extra sparkle on your Christmas tree ornaments, or the way it looks when it's splashed across the bodies and tongues of young women. It's shiny and it catches your eye, but if you can squint past the sparkle you'll find that there's an inky black darkness lingering not too far behind.
There's a popular theory among psychologists that humans' love of glitter actually stems from an attraction to anything that sparkles, which is derived from our innate need for fresh water. Our appreciation of aluminum metalized polyethylene terephthalate, or glitter, is said to be a modern expression of our ancestor's delight when coming across water, except we've adapted its use for crafts, makeup, and even a phenomenon called "glitter bombing," which is an act of protest wherein activists throw glitter on politicians. Because, as everyone knows, it takes forever to get rid of glitter.
But while glitter is made disposable by design, it's not actually physically disposable. The particles are made from a plastic film coated in aluminum, and it takes hundreds of years to completely biodegrade.
Plastic glitter is categorized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a microplastic, which recently became a commonplace term under the umbrella of environmental activism
for its detrimental effects on marine life. It's the reason the UK banned microbeads in makeup and personal care products, and why the US outlawed microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics. Glitter is also a petroleum product coming from fossil fuels, which are a finite resource that we should not be forming into waste, however sparkly it may be.
There are, of course, even more issues when companies have looked to natural sources of glitter, particularly the use of mica, which is mainly harvested from India and frequently in illegal mines by children and underpaid workers.
Fortunately, there are people who have engineered bio-glitter, which is a more environmentally-friendly alternative that replaces plastic with cellulose that comes from tree or plant matter, which still sparkles just as brightly.
Glitter has, however, been useful in unexpected ways, like as an integral piece of evidence for an investigator to incriminate a culprit. It's also apparently been used by the US Air Force to confuse enemy radars by releasing glitter from the back of warplanes, and by zookeepers who reportedly sometimes mix glitter into animals' feed to track them via their sparkling feces. Since the light-catching effect of glitter is hard to recreate without using those tiny particles, nearly everything that looks sparkling—from car paint to pen ink—uses glitter.
But there's a new shady twist to the story, entailing one major glitter client that doesn't want you to know about its use of glitter.
The New York Times
released an investigation into the glitter industry and revealed that the two biggest glitter-manufacturing companies are based in New Jersey, where the sparkling particles are believed to have originated in the 1930s. But when reporter Caity Weaver tried to visit them, only one (Glitterex) allowed her inside, and on the condition that they can't really show her or tell her anything of substance due to confidentiality policies.
The strange secrecy peaked, however, when the manager told Weaver that she was not allowed to reveal who Glitterex's biggest client is. The manager said "You would never guess it," and tried to end the inquiry until Weaver pressed on and asked why it was such a secret. "Because they don’t want anyone to know that it’s glitter," she responded.
Wait, what? Thankfully, Weaver continued to ask questions, including whether she would know if it was glitter by looking at it and if it was possible to see the glitter. “Oh, you’d be able to see something. But it’s—yeah, I can’t.” Apparently their biggest glitter client uses glitter in a way that is imperceptible to its customers.
Who would have thought that the shimmering fairy dust of celebration and sparkle is harboring more than a few dark secrets?