“POP!” Every commencement season, hundreds of confetti poppers go off, and handfuls of glitter are thrown into the air by excited loved ones photographing new graduates. But whether it’s for a photo or just for the thrill, the impact after this split-second moment lasts much longer.
For commencements, weddings, birthdays, or baby showers, alternatives to confetti and glitter can add extra happiness to pictures and moments while still being kind to the Earth. Let the legacy of your celebratory day be a trail of memories, not a trail of glitter.
A lasting impact
Confetti may be tiny, but its impact can be huge.
Glitter itself takes about 1,000 years to fully decompose. Every piece of glitter and plastic confetti ever created is still here––but now it’s not as fun.
“It’s harmful to wildlife,” said Kelli O’Day, UC Davis Sustainability’s assessment program manager. “Any plastic confetti or glitter left on campus can flow through storm drains and end up in the Arboretum Waterway or Putah Creek.”
Wildlife can mistake shiny metallic confetti for food. Even paper confetti can contain harmful chemicals and dyes that contaminate the environment.
Plastic confetti and most glitters are also microplastics. According to the Tahoe Environmental Research Center, microplastics are any plastic fragments less than 5 millimeters. Whether they were once tiny clothing fibers, a plastic bottle now broken down, or confetti around a UC Davis Egghead, they have a cascading and long-lasting effect.
Given how small they are, it may be hard to imagine their capacity for destruction, but microplastics have been found everywhere from deep oceans, to rain, table salt and Antarctic ice. Microplastics can end up in our food, carry toxic chemicals or pathogens that stick to their surface, leach chemicals into the environment, impact soil and drinking water, and hurt the digestive systems of animals that mistake plastic for food, according to UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine Associate Professor Karen Shapiro.
Wild Davis @CANaturalist students used @DebrisTracker to document cleanup of graduation photo confetti on the @ucdavis campus and @UCD_Arboretum! Grads: **congrats** on your degree!! 🎓🍾 But when you celebrate, remember #glitterislitter 🎉🎊 pic.twitter.com/MrmO7DGB4D— Dr. Laci Gerhart (@LMGerhart) May 27, 2022
Toxic compounds like plasticizers, stabilizers, and pigments — all of which may be found in confetti — are also hazardous to human and animal health.
“There is so much that we don’t yet know about the potential harm these particles may have on our natural environment,” said Shapiro.
Alternatives to plastic confetti
It may seem like all the fun options are gone, but there are many alternatives to typical confetti, said O’Day. These options can make your pictures stand out from the endless social media scroll after commencement.
- Flower petals. Fresh or dried flower petals can add the needed color pop to your picture.
- Bubbles. What’s more fun than bubbles? Plus, you’re guaranteed a great candid smile out of it.
- Other flowers and herbs. Lavender, baby’s breath, leaves … the opportunities are endless. You’ll definitely smell good after your photoshoot.
- Hole-punched leaves can be super cute if you’re willing to put in the work with a heart- or star-shaped hole puncher. I did this for my aunt’s wedding, and it was adorable.
- Native bird and wildflower seed. Want to be extra sustainable? Contribute to the Northern California ecosystem by throwing bird and wildflower seed. But be careful! It’s important to do your research on native plant seeds in the area beforehand. The last thing you want is to have your end-of-college impact be the introduction of an invasive species.
- Biodegradable confetti. If you still want the thrill of popping a confetti cannon, there are eco-friendly poppers for sale on platforms like Etsy. Plus, you’d be supporting a small business!
O’Day also recommends renting graduation gowns instead of buying, avoiding balloons, and using paper cut-outs and props instead. Using sparkling water instead of champagne for photoshoots is not only cheaper, but also avoids leaving walkways sticky and stained: “This adds a lot of extra work for our UC Davis grounds crews,” O’Day said.
A trail of glitter
"She who leaves a trail of glitter is not ever forgotten" is a Kate Spade quote that’s true in too many ways.
Our candid joy may generate a fun picture, but that split-second camera click will last for the next 1000 years. Stick to the bubbles.
Want more inspiration? Check out the UC Davis Arboretum’s ideas in their Glitter is Litter Instagram post.
Malia Reiss is a science news intern with UC Davis Strategic Communications. She studies environmental science and management at UC Davis.
Kat Kerlin, UC Davis News and Media Relations, 530-750-9195, email@example.com