This eco-friendly glitter gets its color from plants, not plastic

By | November 18, 2021

All that glitters is not green. Glitter and shimmery pigments are often made using toxic compounds or pollutive microplastics (SN: 4/15/19). That makes the sparkly stuff, notoriously difficult to clean up in the house, a scourge on the environment too.

A new, nontoxic, biodegradable alternative could change that. In the material, cellulose — the main building block of plant cell walls — creates nanoscale patterns that give rise to vibrant structural colors (SN: 9/28/21). Such a material could be used to make eco-friendly glitter and shiny pigments for paints, cosmetics or packaging, researchers report November 11 in Nature Materials.

The inspiration to harness cellulose came from the African plant Pollia condensata, which produces bright, iridescent blue fruits called marble berries. Tiny patterns of cellulose fibers in the berries’ cell walls reflect specific wavelengths of light to create the signature hue. “I thought, if the plants can make it, we should be able to make it,” says chemist Silvia Vignolini of the University of Cambridge. 

Vignolini and colleagues whipped up a watery mixture containing cellulose fibers and poured it onto plastic. As the liquid dried into a film, the rodlike fibers settled into helical structures resembling spiral staircases. Tweaking factors such as the steepness of those staircases changed which wavelengths of light the cellulose arrangements reflected, and therefore the color of the film.

That allowed the researchers, like fairy-tale characters spinning straw into gold, to transform their clear, plant-based slurry into meter-long shimmery ribbons in a rainbow of colors. These swaths could then be peeled off their plastic platform and ground up to make glitter.

This gleaming ribbon contains tiny arrangements of eco-friendly cellulose that reflect light in specific ways to give the material its color.Benjamin Drouguet

“You can use any type of cellulose,” Vignolini says. Her team used cellulose from wood pulp, but could have used fruit peels or cotton fibers left over from textile production.

The researchers need to test the environmental impacts of their newfangled glitter. But Vignolini is optimistic that materials using such natural ingredients have a bright future.