Cambridge scientists invent eco-friendly vegan version of glitter

Party on: Researchers say the new glitter will no longer harm the environment
Party on: Researchers say the new glitter will no longer harm the environment Credit: PA Images

Going green is sometimes controversial - just ask national bakery chain Greggs.

It caused consternation in some parts after it launched its vegan sausage roll.

And Northamptonshire bootmaker Doc Martens also raised a few eyebrows when it rolled out a range of vegan footwear.

Now researchers at the University of Cambridge have turned their attention to the sparkly delights of glitter.

The party staple might be a favourite of kids everywhere, but it can be hard to clear up, is made of toxic and unsustainable materials, and contributes to plastic pollution.

All that glitters may be actually green Credit: University of Cambridge

Now scientists have found a way to make sustainable, non-toxic, vegan and biodegradable glitter from cellulose – the main building block of cell walls in plants, fruits and vegetables – that is just as sparkly as the original.

Green glitter - your questions answered

How is it made?

The glitter is made from cellulose nanocrystals, which can bend light in such a way to create vivid colours through a process called structural colour. The cellulose nanocrystals films prepared by the team can be made at scale using roll-to-roll processes like those used to make paper from wood pulp.

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Will it be as colourful as traditional glitter?

Some of the brightest colours in nature are actually produced through the same phenomenon including butterfly wings and peacock feathers. The results are hues which do not fade, even after a century, researchers say.

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Will the process have any other applications?

Absolutely - using self-assembly techniques that allow the cellulose to produce intensely-coloured films, the researchers say their materials could replace the plastic glitter particles and tiny mineral effect pigments which are widely used in cosmetics. In Europe the cosmetics industry uses about 5,500 tonnes of microplastics every year, they say.

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

"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."

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

An example of the new coloured films Credit: University of Cambridge

They say the demonstration of the fabrication process on commercial equipment is an important step towards making the new material available outside the lab.

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

Prof Vignolini said: “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.

Prof Vignolini said the new glitter would still have all the fun of the original.

"It will be just as annoying – but it won’t harm the planet and is safe for your little ones," she added.

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