Five ways sequins contribute to plastic pollution

A Santa hat decorated with sequins

A Santa hat decorated with sequins

Christmas and New Years are holidays, an opportunity to buy a new and shiny dress. But sequined clothes are an environmental hazard, experts say, for more than one reason.

1 sequins fall out

“I don’t know if you’ve ever worn anything with sequins, but I have, and those things fall out constantly, especially if the clothes are from a fast-fashion or discount store,” says Jane Patton, campaign manager for plastics and petrochemicals with the Center for International Environmental Law.

“They come off when you’re hugging someone, or getting in and out of the car, or even just walking or dancing. They even come off in the wash.”

The problem is the same with glitter. Both are usually made of plastic with a metallic reflective coating. Once they go down the drain, they’ll remain in the environment for centuries, eventually fragmenting into smaller pieces over time.

“Because sequins are synthetic and made from a material that almost certainly contains toxic chemicals, wherever they end up — air, water, soil — it’s potentially dangerous,” says Jane Patton.

“Microplastics are a pervasive and monumental problem. Because they are so small and move so easily, they are impossible to clean or contain.”

Researchers revealed this year that microplastics had even been found in fresh snow from Antarctica.

Biodegradable sequins have been invented but are not yet mass produced.

2 Party dresses – the latest disposable fashion

The charity Oxfam surveyed 2,000 British women aged 18-55 in 2019, 40% of whom said they would buy a sequined piece of clothing this holiday season.

Only a quarter were sure they would wear it again and, on average, respondents said they would wear it five times before putting it away.

5% said they would throw their clothes in the bin once they were done with them, leading Oxfam to calculate that 1.7 million pieces of partywear from 2019 would end up in landfill.

Once in a landfill, the plastic glitter will remain there indefinitely, but studies have found that the liquid waste that leaks out of landfills also contains microplastics.

One group of researchers said their study provided evidence that “landfill is not the ultimate plastic repository, but a potential source of microplastics.”

Barcelona window display with glittering sequin dresses

Sparkly sequined dresses are a staple of year-end shop windows, like here in Barcelona

3 Unsold clothes can be downloaded

Viola Wohlgemuth, head of circular economy and toxic substances for Greenpeace Germany, says that 40% of the items produced by the clothing industry are never sold. These can then be shipped to other countries and downloaded, she says.

Sequined dresses are, inevitably, among these shipments. Viola Wohlgemuth says she’s seen them at flea markets and junkyards in Kenya and Tanzania.

“There is no regulation for textile waste exports. Such exports are disguised as second-hand fabrics and dumped in poor countries, where they end up in landfills or waterways and pollute,” he says.

“It is not banned as a substance of concern like other types of waste, such as electronic or plastic waste, under the Basel Convention.”

4 There is waste when making sequins

The sequins are punched out of the plastic sheets and what remains must be disposed of.

“A few years ago, some companies tried to burn waste in their incinerators,” says Jignesh Jagani, owner of a textile factory in the Indian state of Gujarat.

“And that produced toxic smoke, and the state pollution control agency got wind of it and made companies stop doing it. Managing that waste is really a challenge.”

One of the developers of compostable cellulose sequins, Elissa Brunato, said she started by making sheets of material from which the sequins were then cut out. To avoid this problem, she switched to making sequins in individual molds.

5 sequins are attached to synthetic fibers

The problem isn’t just the sequins, but the synthetic materials they’re usually sewn onto.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, about 60 percent of the material made into clothing is plastic, such as polyester or acrylic, and every time clothes are washed they shed tiny plastic microfibers.

These fibers find their way into waterways and from there into the food chain.

According to an estimate by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, synthetic fabrics are responsible for 35% of the microfibres released into the oceans.

George Harding of the Changing Markets Foundation, which aims to address sustainability issues using the power of the market, says the fashion industry’s use of sequins and plastic fibers (derived from oil or gas) also demonstrates a “deep dependence on the fossil fuel industry for raw materials”.

He adds that garment production is expected to nearly double by 2030, from 2015 levels, so “the problem is only likely to get worse without significant action.”

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