By now it’s well documented that those tiny plastic microbeads used in face scrubs and toothpastes are contaminating lakes and oceans at an alarming rate. Starting next month they’ll be officially banned in the US for personal care products, but oily faces rejoice, eco-friendly replacements are already in the works.
A single bottle of Johnson & Johnson’s Clean & Clear has over 330,000 of the tiny plastic beads, and as you rinse your face in the sink after a scrub, you send those tiny bits of plastic on a long journey that eventually ends in lakes and the world’s oceans. The beads are too small to be caught by sewage filtration systems, take years to break down, and not only are they mistaken by fish and other aquatic dwellers as food (having absolutely no nutritional value), they’re made of plastic which absorbs other pollutants in the water. And thanks to the food chain, eventually those beads could end up in your meal.
But in a paper published in the ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering journal on May 31, scientists at the University of Bath’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies detail their creation of biodegradable microbeads that can be manufactured using renewable resources.
The tough fibres found in plants are made from a material called cellulose which the scientists dissolve and then force through tiny holes in a rolled, tube-shaped membrane to produce spherical droplets. Those droplets then dry and set, becoming tiny beads that hold their shape in soaps and toothpastes, but can also be easily broken down into sugars when exposed to microbes in treatment plants, or naturally when they make their way out into the environment.
The cellulose material needed to manufacture the biodegradable beads can also be derived from renewable resources, such as agricultural or paper-manufacturing waste.
The research team has also found it can adjust the physical properties of the beads, making them softer or harder as required. And to help further develop the microbeads for use in medications, Britain’s Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council has awarded the team over £1 million to continue its research. Once perfected, the researchers then want to work with the cosmetic industry to help put their microbeads in products again.