(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This year, retailers have declared war on an unlikely enemy: Christmas glitter. Those sparkly bits of plastic that make ornaments twinkle, wrapping paper glimmer and wreaths shimmer are increasingly seen as an environmental hazard. In response, three British retailers are eliminating them from gift bags, Christmas crackers and other holiday staples. Thus a more sustainable and guilt-free Christmas will be had by all. Or so the thinking goes.
It’s not a crazy idea. Tiny pieces of plastic are indeed a threat to the environment, and retailers can make a difference in reducing them. But doing so will require far more than banning holiday baubles. It’ll mean rethinking how everyday plastics are manufactured and marketed to consumers in the first place.
Plastic pollution, especially in the ocean, is typically associated with single-use items such as bags and straws. But in recent years, scientists have also focused on the profusion of so-called microplastics, which are about the size of a sesame seed or less. Some of these are generated by the breakdown and abrasion of larger products. But a significant percentage are “primary microplastics,” such as synthetic clothing fibers, worn tire treads, and the microbeads used in products like toothpaste and body scrubs.
They add up. Humans release 1.5 million tons of primary microplastics into the ocean annually, a sum equivalent to one disgorged plastic bag for every person each week. Such pollutants now make up as much as 31% of all ocean plastic, and they turn up all over the marine environment, from the ocean surface to the seafloor to the guts of a wide range of fauna.
Fixing the problem isn’t easy, in part because the major sources of microplastics aren’t easily regulated. A comprehensive 2017 study of the problem found that just 2% of such plastics are derived from microbeads, which several countries have started restricting. The leading source — at 35% — turned out to be clothes made from synthetic textiles (such as holiday-themed polar fleece pullovers) that had been run through the laundry. In second place, at 28%, were the abraded bits of car and truck tires that wash from roads into waterways.
Glitter didn’t even make the list. But it has become something of a pop-culture pariah nonetheless. In 2017, glitter-skeptical studies inspired a British daycare chain to stop ordering the stuff for its preschoolers. In 2018, “Strictly Come Dancing,” a British television show, announced that glitter would no longer be welcome on contestants’ costumes. Retailers soon followed, with Waitrose Ltd. making plans to ban glitter from its own-brand products. In recent weeks, John Lewis Partnership Plc and Wm Morrison Supermarkets Plc have taken similar steps.
These efforts won’t do much to reduce marine plastics (boat paint, not Christmas, is the leading market for glitter). But they do offer retailers a way to burnish their environmental bona fides without having to meaningfully alter how they operate. Morrisons recently went so far as to tell the BBC that it adopted its anti-glitter stance so customers can enjoy the holidays “without worrying about the environmental impact.”
Shoppers are unlikely to be fooled by such rhetoric for long. As anti-plastic sentiment grows globally, British consumers are already demanding sustainable products and shopping experiences. In time, they’ll expect retailers and brands to address the products that are actually contributing to the problem.
The good news is that several companies are on the right track. Leading apparel brands, including Patagonia Inc., Adidas AG and Hennes & Mauritz AB, have acknowledged that their synthetic garments are a major source of plastic microfiber pollution. Some are researching better manufacturing methods, while others are educating consumers about how to care for garments so that they pollute less.
Retailers could play an important role in amplifying that message. They could start by marketing best practices for managing synthetic garments and offering products such as filter bags and front-loading washers that help reduce fiber pollution. In the long term, these efforts should pressure manufacturers into creating more sustainable products and nudge consumers to think twice about the environmental impact of their clothing.
That won’t bring back the once-beloved holiday glitter. But it’ll ensure that retailers aren’t just faking it when they say they’re going green.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."
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