Does Christmas go better with glitter—not if you value the rainbow fish!

Have you made sparkly rainbow fish or is your early childhood service using glitter this Christmas? According to scientists researching the environmental impacts of microplastics, it’s time to think again.

Microplastics are generally defined as minute pieces of plastic with a diameter of less than 5mm, and mostly not visible to the naked eye. They may be derived from plastic bags that have broken down into tiny pieces or microfibres from synthetic clothing and textiles, or possibly microbeads manufactured for use in a range of products like cosmetics, toothpaste and cleaning agents. ‘Each time a person uses a facial or body wash containing microbeads, up to 94 000 miniscule beads can be flushed down the drain’, according to research from Plymouth University, UK (www.choice.com.au/health-and-body/beauty-and-personal-care/skin-care-and-cosmetics/articles/microplastics-and-microbeads-in-toothpaste-facial-body-scrubs). Some countries have already banned microbeads in personal care products and a voluntary phasing out of microbeads is underway to address this issue in Australia. Glitter is a microplastic too, and the concern is that all these various forms of microplastics inevitably end up in waterways or oceans through waste water. As adults, and with young children, we often focus on highly visible rubbish like discarded bottles, cans and paper that we might see along a roadside or in a park, or express evocative concern about marine life entangled in ropes, nets or bags, but microplastics are an invisible and growing environmental concern.

The problem is that once in the waterways or oceans, microplastics readily become part of the food chain. They are inadvertently taken in by freshwater and marine life such as worms, shellfish or fish, and in turn these are consumed by predatory fish and marine animals and ultimately, humans. The potential short- and long-term impacts of this concentration of microplastics up the food chain are a subject of ongoing research. And of particular concern are the toxic compounds that also adhere to microplastics.

Photo: Quirindi Preschool

So, in early childhood education services, can we rethink Christmas glitter and save the rainbow fish? What might be some alternatives? There is no right response here, but an ongoing process of critically thinking about what we do and why.

Begin by questioning whether you actually need something ‘sparkly’ and if so, are there other materials that can be repurposed, including clean shiny pie plates, containers, lids or wrappers that can be easily cut to shape by children. You could consider suspended old CDs, tin lids, saucepan lids, bottle tops and coffee pods—these also offer a reflective surface and are particularly ‘sparkly’ when placed near a window or in a tree outdoors. You may locate opportunity shop treasures with ‘sparkle’ such as jewellery and old cards or wool, ribbon, paper and fabric remnants. Of course this involves some creative collecting and a sense of resourcefulness.

There is also the question of do we paste these ‘sparkly’ treasures, and do they subsequently end up in landfill? Are there ways to utilise these materials as temporary or ephemeral collages and constructions, to be photographed and later dismantled and reused at another time? Could ‘sparkly’ decorations be made and offered as gifts to families or stored ready for the next year, only to be rediscovered and embellished further?

A further option is to dispense with the ‘sparkle’ notion and seek other small repurposed items including plastic lids, coloured paper or card, the traditional items of collage trolleys and again we might rethink what is to be pasted and what might be temporary. Collecting some natural materials may be appropriate, such as dried and old petals, flowers, seed pods or leaves, however we must consider our ethical relations with plants from post-human perspectives (Refer https://mothernatured.com/nature-crafts-for-kids/natures-glitter-biodegradable-fragrant-and-fun/).

There are no easy answers to these questions, but ultimately like The Rainbow Fish (Pfister, 2000), this is about relationships and belonging. Too often we focus only on human relationships and belonging without considering the environment and longer-term sustainability and health concerns. If we value our relationships with the Earth, including all plant and animal species, and advocate for belonging with the Earth, please do ban glitter at Christmas and save the rainbow fish.

References

Pfister, M. (2000). The Rainbow Fish. New York, NY: North-South Books.

Some further websites of interest:

www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/FlagPost/2016/June/Marine_microplastics

www.beatthemicrobead.org/product-lists/

https://au.news.yahoo.com/a/38129704/glitter-scientists-cause-to-ban-over-environment-threat/

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Sue Elliott

Dr Sue Elliott is Senior Lecturer and Course Co-ordinator in the School of Education, University of New England. She has been engaged in early childhood education for sustainability and outdoor nature play advocacy and practice for over two decades and is an acknowledged author in the early childhood field.

2 thoughts on “Does Christmas go better with glitter—not if you value the rainbow fish!”

    Michelle Cunningham says:

    Hi Dr Sue Elliott,
    Thanks for this article, it has really given me some ‘food for thought’. I have brought this up previously with staff at our centre and will now do this again with a copy of your article for them to read and consider. I will be doing some research on what we can use instead and begin to inform and educate our parents of the ills of glitter and how we can begin to change.
    Thanks again.

    Nikki Oehlers says:

    Dear Sue,

    This was a very insightful read and has me once again thinking about the little things I can do not just as an educator but within my own home. I have to say I didn’t know anything about microbeads and in addition to your article found the information in the choice piece very interesting.
    Thankyou for continuing to raise awareness and educate us all about such an integral matter.

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