Moneybox

Seven Possible Industrial Uses of Glitter to Ponder This Weekend

A man in a button-down shirt with glitter in the air.
Is it the stock photo industry?
Noah Buscher/Unsplash

Grab your tinfoil hat and walk with me down sparkle way. In the Dec. 21 New York Times, Caity Weaver has a rollicking dispatch from the Glitterex glitter factory, which reveals the true nature of glitter—aluminum metalized polyethylene terephthalate—before hinting at a greater mystery: a top-secret industrial glitter use that accounts for most of the company’s sales.

The following exchange ensues when Weaver asks Glitterex manager Lauren Dyer why she can’t disclose this enigmatic buyer:

Dyer: “Because they don’t want anyone to know that it’s glitter.”

Weaver: “If I looked at it, I wouldn’t know it was glitter?”

Dyer: “No, not really.”

Weaver: “Would I be able to see the glitter?”

Dyer: “Oh, you’d be able to see something. But it’s — yeah, I can’t.”

On Twitter, Weaver followed up: “Please ask the smartest person in your family what the glitter industry’s biggest market is, and reveal their answers here.”

I went one further: I asked Joe Colleran at Meadowbrook Inventions, the world’s leading glitter manufacturer. “It’s nothing so interesting,” he says. “Small manufacturers protect client information to protect business. It’s really that simple.”

Clearly, it was time to do some digging. But it wasn’t really the perfect time, since it’s Christmas week, and everyone in America is on vacation. To make matters worse, the investigation requires a level of confidence in chemical and physical sciences to which I stopped aspiring in high school. The colleagues who would be able to answer my questions? They’re on vacation too.

And so I present to you a half-baked Friday afternoon inquiry: seven potential industrial uses of glitter (hat tip to sleuths on Twitter and Reddit) where the clients might not want you to know they were working with a glitter company.

Fighter jets. Most military aircraft are equipped with tubes of chaff, “millions of tiny aluminum- or zinc-coated fibers,” to boggle radar-guided missiles and tracking systems. Did someone say aluminum-coated fibers? According to an October Pentagon report, there’s only one remaining supplier of chaff to the Department of Defense: Esterline Defense Technologies, which manufactures the stuff in North Carolina under the subsidiary Armtec. Unfortunately for us, Armtec says its chaff is made of metalized glass fibers. (An Esterline representative had not responded to Slate as of press time.)

Spacecraft. The gold and silver sheets you often see on NASA equipment protect spacecraft from the temperature extremes of outer space. They are aluminized polyimides—close cousins of the sheets that are chopped up for party decorations and makeup. If, say, a satellite-launching startup were looking for a Mylar substitute in small quantities without paying for the DuPont brand name or buying at the markups of the military-industrial complex, could it just turn to any old glitter factory? Maybe! Is it still glitter if it hasn’t been chopped up into a million pieces? Maybe not! (The National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service couldn’t be reached for comment; it’s closed because of the government shutdown.)

Rocket fuel. Everyone knows NASA’s Space Launch System uses aluminum powder (along with ammonium perchlorate) as solid rocket fuel. What this article presupposes is: Maybe they use glitter instead.

Sand. The world is running out of sand, in case you needed one more thing to worry about, so the construction industry is increasingly turning to manufactured sand (very fine crushed rock) as a component of concrete. Could the sand industry be spiking M-sand with glitter in search of the natural sparkle of Key West–style quartz sand for cosmetic uses like concrete floors, walls, or countertops? Maybe, but the vast majority of concrete never has to meet any aesthetic standard at all.

Fishing bait. Glitter is certainly a component in many plastic fishing lures, but it’s not a secret, and I’m not sure why it would be.

Toothpaste. Earlier in the decade, online reviewers attested that Crest-brand “3D White Vivid” toothpaste contained small plastic particles that were getting logged in brushers’ teeth and gums. In 2014, Procter & Gamble, which owns Crest, wrote to Snopes that the company (and its peers) were using “limited amounts of small colored polyethylene specs in some toothpastes”—essentially microbeads, which were then common in soap and body wash, to give color. The ingredient was safe, P&G insisted, and to the extent it made people like brushing their teeth, it led to healthier dental outcomes. Arguing that consumer preferences had changed (there was also a federal law passed in 2015 against microbeads), Crest eliminated microbeads from North American toothpaste by 2016. Could glitter be providing some of that missing sparkle in toothpaste and other microbead-less cosmetics? (Procter & Gamble PR did not respond to a request for comment by press time.)

Money. Sure, why not? Glitter in money. To make it hard to counterfeit and give it a cool look.

Or, of course, we could take Meadowbrook Joe at his word and assume that the answer is the least-interesting one possible, like the shiny paint on a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of beer. A July Research and Markets industry report notes that the largest end-uses for metalized films include food packaging, decoration, and cosmetics.

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