Shellac, or E904, is a glazing agent made from the secretion of female lac bugs. After fertilization, the female lac bug finds a spot on a tree and creates a layer of shellac that covers herself entirely. In this cocoon-like place, the lac bug lays her eggs, which will be protected thanks to the shellac. Later the eggs will hatch and the new lac bugs will come out from under the shellac.
Nowadays shellac is mostly produced on special shellac plantations in Southeast Asia. There lac bugs live in trees and are harvested periodically. This happens by scraping off the layer of shellac from the branches of the trees, which kills many lac bugs and their eggs. Usually enough branches are spared to ensure that the lac bug colony survives and can continue to reproduce and make more shellac. An estimated 50,000 to 300,000 lac bugs are needed to produce 1 kilogram of shellac. According to the Shellac Export Promotion Council, 25 percent of shellac consists of ‘insect debris’. Millions of lac bugs are systematically killed, just to make a bit of glazing agent. This is especially unfortunate as there are also plant-based glazing agents, but these are not used much. Shellac is not only animal unfriendly and not vegan, its production is also bad for humans. Reports by NGOs have shown that people working at shellac plantations and shellac processing factories are often underpaid, exploited and treated badly and child labour is not uncommon. Another reason why it’s good to avoid shellac.
These are a few products that often contain a layer of shellac :
- Citrus fruit (almost always made shiny with a layer of shellac)
- Apples (sometimes)
- Nail polish
- Medicine (often to make them resistant against stomach acid)
- Furniture wax
- Wood finish
- Some musical instruments
- Waterproof ink
Shellac Export Promotion Council
Berenbaum, May (1993). Ninety-nine More Maggots, Mites and Munchers. University of Illinois Press, Champaign.