With certain US states having recently proposed a ban on microbeads and personal care giants pledging to favor natural alternatives, a closer look at the feasibility of the shift could take a lot longer than expected.
Microbeads have commonly been used as exfoliants in skin care scrubs, shower gels and soaps. These abrasives then get rinsed down the drain, but are not able to be filtered out at sewage treatment plants.
In recent months, global players like Unilever, L’Oréal, P&G and J&J all announced their replacement plans for the substance by 2017, however some researchers say those alternatives may now come with their own effects.
According to L’Oréal reps, phasing out the ingredient will be a complex process. "It requires the analysis & identification of viable alternative(s) that can meet many criteria (including human & environmental safety, efficacy, sustainable sourcing of the raw material and overall costs).”
Even biodegradable waxes could cause setbacks..
Biodegradable natural wax based exfoliators like jojoba beads act in much the same way as microbeads and are less likely to harm the environment, but experts say that these ingredients often cost more or have a more problematic supply chain.
Greg Boyer at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry told the Guardian that there is also possible negative consequence with degrading sugars that biochemically 'burn' sugar for energy.
"If you have any type of stratified water column there may not be enough oxygen present to support this process, hence the bacteria draw down the oxygen to a point where fish and other critters die," he told the publication.
"The algae grow in the top water, settle down to the bottom waters and the bacteria decompose them and use all the available oxygen in the bottom waters. Adding a natural carbon source, either sugar or nut shell, would only make the problem worse. Because synthetic microplastic beads don't degrade well, they don't tend to cause this problem," he adds.
US takes stance on the substance
It all started earlier in the year with New York's Attorney General Eric Schneiderman proposing the ‘first-in-the-nation' legislation to ban the form of plastic pollution that he reported as an emerging threat to the Great Lakes and other bodies of water.
California followed shortly after as the second state to get on board with the initiative.
The bill, which would impose civil penalties, isn’t as drastic as New York’s, which would ban not just the sale, but also the manufacture of products containing plastic particles 5mm or smaller in diameter.