Scientists Create Biodegradable Microbeads from Cellulose

Did you know that your toothpaste, shower gel or even shampoo contain microbeads that contribute to ocean pollution? Did you also know that with one shower, at least 100,000 plastic particles end up in the ocean? Sounds odd right? People generally assume that the only bad guys are micro and macro plastics that pollutes the environment. Well, they aren’t the only culprit as the microbeads used in our everyday products form part of the eight million tons of plastic that enters the ocean, causing alarming levels of ocean pollution.

And no, you don’t need to stop taking showers to protect the environment. Fortunately, scientists at the University of Bath have come up with a solution that can prevent these plastic particles from causing further harm. But before we discuss the invention, let’s understand the basics of microbeads.

What are Microbeads?

Microbeads are solid plastic particles that are used in personal care items such as toothpaste, shampoos, shower gels, face gels, face wash, cosmetics etc. The microbeads are minuscule in size measuring up to five millimeters at maximum, passing unfiltered through the sewerage system. They contain polyethylene and petrochemical plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene.

Manufacturers replaced natural components of exfoliation products (ground nut shells or crushed apricot seeds) with plastic microbeads because they are more effective in cleansing the skin and even came cheaper. Since the 1960s, microbeads were then added to hundreds of cosmetic care products, especially face washes and skin exfoliators.

According to a UN estimate, 51 trillion microplastic particles are present in the ocean and cannot be eliminated. Aquatic species consume these particles mistaking them to be as food and so they die out of starvation and these microbeads end up on our dinner plates. Imagine the irony - the product we use to wash our dirt ends up being on our plate. Fortunately, brands and individuals have acknowledged and recognized the environmental threat of the microbeads and they have been labeled as an environmental hazard.

The Micro-free Waters Act of 2015 in the US has pledged to eliminate the use of microbeads in personal care cosmetics by July 2017. Similar campaigns have also been witnessed in the past with countries like the UK, Canada and Ireland taking respective measures to ban microbeads in detergents and personal care products. These campaigns have led brands as Johnson & Johnson, Loreal and others to phase out conventional microbeads by 2015 and introduce biodegradable microbeads by 2017. There are still hundreds of cosmetic companies out there that still have to replace their products with biodegradable materials, but the count is slow and the ocean is still being polluted by this dangerous substance.

Breakthrough Innovation by the Scientists at Bath

Engineers and scientists at the University of Bath have recently developed a groundbreaking innovation replacing conventional microbeads with biodegradable cellulose microbeads from a sustainable source.

The research team at the University of Bath’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) has developed a technology that utilizes biodegradable cellulose – a material found naturally in wood and plants. The process starts with transforming the cellulose into a set form by dissolving the cellulose into tiny beads. These beads are then added to toothpaste or exfoliation products and work like a charm because they can be made to take on a harder form. And no, environmentalists don’t have to worry because no tree or plants will be harmed to extract the cellulose. The reason being that the same cellulose can be obtained from wasted resources of the paper industry! (we know, we know paper is another concern here).

Dr. Janet Scott, Reader in the Department of Chemistry, leads the team, winning them more than £1 million in funding for the expansion of the project. Talking about the project, Dr. Scott explains the harmful effects of microbeads, stating, “Microbeads used in the cosmetics industry are often made of polyethylene or polypropylene, which are cheap and easy to make. However, these polymers are derived from oil and they take hundreds of years to break down in the environment. We’ve developed a way of making microbeads from cellulose, which is not only from a renewable source but also biodegrades into harmless sugars.”

The team intends to take this discovery up with industrial partners and use it in personal care products, therefore, replacing current microbead particles. The same component can also be used in slow release fertilizers with no harm to the environment.

What Can You Do to Prevent the Environment from Microbeads?

Although microbeads are a toxic problem, it is easy to solve. You don’t need to sign any pledge or be part of any campaign, but as an individual, you can make a difference by not using products with microbeads. And how would you know which products contain them? Simply read the ingredients. If it contains any of the aforementioned plastic components, do not use them. Remember that microbeads are easier and cheaper for manufacturers, but they have also been considered to be bad for the skin. Some studies claim that it creates small tears in the skin, thereby causing the skin to become dry and coarse over time. So although these fancy products seem wonderful, they are actually bad for the skin.

There are alternative options to popular cosmetic products that deliver the same results. Sugar granules, white oats, baking soda etc are some of the organic ways you can have clean skin without affecting the environment. It won’t be easy and you may have to invest a bit of time and effort as compared to a grab and go product; but hey, anything to limit environmental pollution!

Through a collective effort, we can manage to prevent the ocean from being polluted with man-made pollutants as the microbeads. Until then, we can hope that the scientists at Bath can play a significant role in introducing biodegradable cellulose to popular cosmetic products so we can keep our skins clean without toxifying the ocean.

Farah tries to keep up with the fast-paced tech world by writing about it. She covers latest tech news and writes informative pieces to help her readers make informed decisions about their tech preferences.