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Sequins are terrible for the environment. A greener (and sparklier) alternative is here

These plant-based sequins will decompose instead of ending up in the ocean, where conventional sequins can be swallowed by fish and end up in your sushi.

Sequins are terrible for the environment. A greener (and sparklier) alternative is here
[Photo: gsermek/iStock, Yevheniia Yasenenko/iStock]

Look, I don’t want to bum you out. But maybe don’t buy anymore sequin dresses to go out clubbing or to look festive at your holiday party. The current sequins on the market are made from plastic and they’re truly terrible for the environment.

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I get it. Sequins are the best. Humans are literally preconditioned to love sparkly, glittery things. Evolutionary biologists say that it’s because our ancestors had to locate fresh water for survival, which involved being attuned to light reflecting on its surface. In the modern world, we have potable water gushing out of our faucets. So we take this survival instinct and pour it into sequin-covered miniskirts, tutus, and heels.

[Photo: courtesy Elissa Brunato]
But when that sequin-covered dress of yours reaches the end of its life—let’s be honest you’re only going to wear it a few times anyway because it’s so dramatic—it’s going to end up in the trash. Traditional plastic sequins will sit in a landfill for hundreds of years, since plastic doesn’t biodegrade. Many sequins will get swept into the ocean, where they are very likely to get swallowed by fish, who will mistake them for food. And the next time you eat a tuna sushi roll or roasted salmon for dinner, there’s a very high likelihood that you will be ingesting tiny particles of plastic that are toxic for your liver.

[Photo: courtesy Elissa Brunato]
But before you throw your hands up in the air, asking yourself if it is really worth living in a world where you cannot wear sequins, I have some good news for you. Designer Elissa Brunato has invented a sequin that is made from trees. “They are made of 100% cellulose, which is natural plant matter,” she tells Fast Company. “They are compostable.”

[Photo: courtesy Elissa Brunato]

And yes, these sequins are just as sparkly and fun as the plastic sequins on the market. Tree-based cellulose, which can be extracted from any tree, happens to have a polymer structure that reflects light. “The color is a result of the material nano-structure, so there are no chemicals or colorants added to create the colorful shimmering effect,” she says

[Photo: courtesy Elissa Brunato]

After realizing she could use cellulose, Brunato worked with material scientists Hjalmar Granberg and Tiffany Abitbol from the Research Institute of Sweden to pour the liquid-based cellulose into a mold that looks very similar to the sequins we find in the fashion industry when it hardens. They are strong enough to be sewn into garments, but they will eventually biodegrade.

[Photo: courtesy Elissa Brunato]
All of Brunato’s work revolves around creating more sustainable versions of the products we use everyday. Recently, she worked with an artisanal bread manufacturer in London to collect the husks of wheat grains, which are usually composted, and turn them into packaging materials. She has also debuted a project called Circular Socks, which are woven out of a fiber that can be easily taken apart and turned into new socks.

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According to the Global Fashion Agenda, a sustainability nonprofit, 75% of consumers now view sustainability as very important. Brands across the industry, from Everlane to Adidas, have been particularly focused on their plastic usage. A plastic-free sequin could be attractive to them. Who doesn’t love a sweater or a sneaker with a little pizzazz?

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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