Could our Christmas "sparkle" be harming our health and that of the planet?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The consequences of breathing and eating microplastics are not yet fully understood, although breathing in other man-made particles such as those arising from mining and car exhausts are proven to have health effects on lungs and heart conditions.”

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Nothing says Christmas like sparkle – glittery wrapping paper, tinsel and baubles on tree, Christmas jumpers, and of course, Christmas dinner would not be complete without the crackers and their bad jokes! So what do all these have in common? They are, in fact, all made of plastic which breaks down over time to form micro- and then nano-plastics, which we breath in, eat (and drink) and release to the environment!  

Researchers at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental sciences (GEES) at the University of Birmingham are concerned about these microplastics, and their impact on environmental and human health. Via a new University wide initiative Birmingham in Action and through our existing projects, including the 100 Plastic Rivers Project, we are investigating the sources, transport and breakdown of microplastics in rivers globally. We are expecting to see fluxes of microplastics arising as a result of Christmas given the large amount of sparkle (plastic) waste generated over the festive period. 

So where is all this plastic coming from?  Starting from the Christmas tree, which if it is a real one likely came wrapped in a plastic netting, or if artificial is likely made from polyvinylchloride (PVC) or polypropylene, all of which are types of durable plastic.  It is hotly debated at the moment as to whether a real or artificial tree is more environmentally friendly, with the answer being that a living one in a pot that you can re-use year on year is the greenest option, but an artificial one used over many years is also fine. Tinsel is another source of plastic with modern ones being made of Modern tinsel is typically made from PVC film coated with a metallic finish whereas older ones were made only from metals such as silver and lead. The glitter coated baubles, which used to be made from glass, are now also typically made from brown plastic, such as expanded polystyrene. The glitter they are coated with is made from polyester (also known as PET) so more plastic (although non-plastic glitters are increasingly available) while older glitters were made from mineral clays.  And finally, the lovely Christmas jumpers! These are very often made of polyester, a man-made plastic fabric, and are typically covered in glitter also. 

We are increasingly understanding that all these plastic products are constantly degrading and shedding small particles into the environment. Indeed, there is a well-known joke cited by frustrated parents that even burning the house down won’t get rid of glitter that lingers long after the toys are gone. A recent study found that around 100 microplastic fibres (typically from synthetic clothing) deposit on the average UK dinner plate during a 20 minute meal, which is 100 times more than consumed via seafood. The consequences of breathing and eating microplastics are not yet fully understood, although breathing in other man-made particles such as those arising from mining and car exhausts are proven to have health effects on lungs and heart conditions. At the university of Birmingham, we are working to see whether this exposure to plastics increases over the festive season. One way we are doing this, is by collecting samples of our vacuum cleaning dust before, during and after Christmas to monitor changes related to the festive sparkle and correlating these with the potential sources of microplastics in our homes – our Christmas trees, crackers, jumpers etc. We will publish our findings next year as evidence-based understanding of the additional exposure to microplastics arising as a result of our festive sparkle along with clear recommendations for how to reduce exposure to unnecessary plastics.  Looks like a return to retro decorations may be on the cards for 2020.

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