Environmental groups are applying increasing pressure to outlaw micro-beads because of their purported environmental impact, with California-based environmental group 5 Gyre mounting a particularly sophisticated campaign.
Some of the biggest cosmetic and personal care producers have already banned microbeads from formulations, but the environmental groups believe that there is still much work to be done.
Micro--beads have commonly been used as exfoliants in skin care scrubs, shower gels and soaps. They are based micro-plastic abrasives, but according to 5 Gyre, this is one of the most ‘egregious’ sources of plastic pollution because the plastic is designed to be flushed down the drain.
Focusing on manufactureres, consumers and legislators
The group is pressurizing both retailers to stop selling products that contain microbeads, as well as encouraging manufacturers to stop using it as an ingredient in cosmetic and personal care formulations.
Likewise, the group is also campaigning to raise consumers awareness about the issue, and encouraging individuals to vote with their spending power by boycotting such products.
Finally, the campaign also focuses on legislators by encouraging them to execute a ban on the substance in all consumer products.
Unilever works to phase out micro-beads
At the beginning of 2013, Anglo-Dutch consumer giant announed that it would be phasing out the use of micro-beads and micro-plastics by 2015.
The company said it had made its decision after growing evidence from marine scientists and environmental groups that micro-plastic particles are accumulating in the ocean, causing considerable environmental perils to a range of marine life and marine eco systems.
"We have decided to phase out the use of plastic micro beads as a ‘scrub’ material in all of our personal care products. We expect to complete this phase out globally by 2015," the company said in an official statement.
Working towards a sustainable alternative
Last week researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science said that a grant had given them the resources to go ahead with a study to develop a PHA-based micro-bead for cosmetic products with a far lower environmental impact.
The $60,000 grant, from the Virginia Innovation Partnership, was awarded to Dr Kirk Havens and assistant professor Donna Bilkovic to develop and test a biodegradable replacement for micro-beads found in sunscreen, shampoo, soap, lip gloss, and moisturizers.
They will collaborate on the project with Drs Jason McDevitt, Director of William & Mary's Technology Transfer Office, Charles Bott of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, and David Holbrook of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
The researchers have already begun creating batches of microbeads in the laboratory; testing various formulations and processes for producing beads of different colour and size-from 1 to 100 microns.
"The idea," says Havens, "is that our microbeads will biodegrade quickly, within septic tanks, wastewater treatment plants, and smaller tributaries; before they ever reach the Bay. It's a proactive approach to reducing microplastic pollution."