Microbeads are little spheres of plastic less than 0.5 mm in size that are added to personal care and cleaning products including toothpaste, cosmetics, shower gel, sunscreens and fillers. Too small to be removed by sewage filtration systems, these ecologically damaging plastic contaminants end up in rivers and oceans, where they are ingested by birds, fish and other marine life.
It is estimated that a single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean, contributing to the eight million tonnes of plastic that enters the ocean every year. It is feared that the particles may also be entering the food chain, harming wildlife but also potentially ending up in our food.
As a result of recent campaigning by environmental groups, countries around the world are taking action against microplastics. Britain has pledged to ban the products containing plastic microbeads by the end of 2017 and France and Sweden have made similar pledges to come into force in early 2018.
Now a research team, from the University of Bath’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT), has developed a way of producing a biodegradable renewable alternative to plastic microbeads in a scalable, continuous microencapsulaton process.
The new more eco-friendly beads are made from cellulose, which is the material that forms the fibres found in wood and plants. Bath’s scientists have developed a process to dissolve the cellulose to reform it into tiny beads by forming droplets that are then “set”. These microbeads are robust enough to remain stable in a bodywash, but can be broken down by organisms at the sewage treatment works, or even in the environment in a short period of time.
The researchers anticipate they could use cellulose from a range of “waste” sources, including from the paper making industry as a renewable source of raw material.
Dave Palmer, Micropore’s Business Development Manager says: "Building on the process developed at Bath, Micropore’s patented continuous encapsulation technology will allow the particle size and particle size distribution to be tailored, at industrial meaningful flow rates. So instead of the millilitres per hour achieved in the laboratory we're talking about the litres per hour that will be required by product manufacturers."
Bath University article
James Coombs OBrien, Laura Torrente-Murciano, David Mattia and Janet L Scott’s published paper
For more information on industrial scale micro-encapsulation contact: Dave Palmer at Micropore Technology