In January, a ‘world-leading’ ban on the use of microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products came into effect in the UK. The ban was a major step for the UK Government, which has recently doubled-down on efforts to ‘eliminate all avoidable plastic waste’ by 2042.

“The world’s seas and oceans are some of our most valuable natural assets and I am determined we act now to tackle the plastic that devastates our precious marine life,” said environment minister Thérèse Coffey. “Microbeads are entirely unnecessary when there are so many natural alternatives available, and I am delighted that from today cosmetics manufacturers will no longer be able to add this harmful plastic to their rinse-off products.”

Microbeads were invented in 1976, when chemical engineer John Ugelstad developed a series of minute polystyrene beads, each sphere exactly the same size as the next. Ugelstad’s creation was a breakthrough for modern medicine; the microbeads could be used to treat cancer, aid HIV research and even underpins the technological basis behind home pregnancy tests. However, they were also adopted by a variety of cosmetic and personal care brands, which included the microplastic ingredients as abrasive scrubbers and for cleansing purposes in toiletries such as face wash and toothpaste.

A microbead is defined by its size: typically 0.5 to 500 micrometres in diameter. But despite their small stature, their impact on the marine environment has been disastrous. More than 680 tonnes of mircrobeads are used in the UK every year, many of which are washed down the drain where they are introduced into the ocean, creating havoc for the marine wildlife that come into contact with the plastic particles. Over the past few years, politicians and manufacturers have been under pressure to eliminate microbeads from cosmetic and personal care products, and now after a year of consultation on the subject, the microbeads ban has finally come into effect in the UK. We take a look at how the ban, and the implications it has for the packaging industry moving forward.

The environmental impact of microbeads

Microbeads are barely visible to the naked eye; but thousands of these tiny plastic spheres appear in a myriad of personal care and cosmetics products used by consumers every day. In fact, according to the UK Parliament’s environmental audit committee, a single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles being washed down the drain.

The majority of products that feature microbeads are designed to be washed or rinsed down the drain after use, which pushes them into the sewage system. Unlike larger plastics packaging, which can be collected for recycling and reuse, sewage treatment facilities are not designed to filter synthetic floating particles and the plastic ingredients do not decompose in wastewater treatment systems. Consequently, the ingredients are released through raw sewage, treated effluents, sewage fertiliser and landfill, or they end up polluting the world’s oceans.  It is estimated that between 16 and 86 tonnes of plastic microbeads from facial exfoliants are washed down UK drains every year, according to a report published by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

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Because microbeads are non-biodegradable, they are impossible to remove once they have entered the marine environment. This can create big problems for marine wildlife, particularly as sea animals cannot differentiate between tiny plastic particles and food. Microplastic waste can be absorbed or ingested by a variety of species, from zooplankton to fish and turtles. According to an overview published for the Convention on Biological Diversity, more than 663 species of wildlife are affected by plastics pollution. Some species can excrete plastic easily, but others accumulate it internally. Research suggests that this can negatively impact growth and reproduction processes. One study from 2016 found that polystyrene microparticles interfered with energy uptake and allocation, reproduction, and offspring performance in oysters.

As microbeads are so small, collectively they have a substantial surface area, which allows them to absorb large amounts of toxins. In fact, according to Greenpeace, a single plastic particle can absorb up to one million times more toxic chemicals than the water around it.

Debating the scope of products covered by the microbead ban

The UK is not alone in banning the use of microbeads in cosmetic and personal care products; however the scope of this initiative far surpasses that of the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which was approved by the US Government in 2015. It is the scope of the ban that has come under fire from cosmetics and personal care companies, many of which argue that the proposal is too broad.

During the UK Government’s microbeads consultation the scope of the ban was called into question by stakeholders. While the majority of those consulted welcomed the ban, some respondents stated that the ban should not be extended to leave-on cosmetics, citing a lack of evidence of environmental impact and the difficulties involved with rapidly reformulating these products. Other respondents asked for the ban to be extended to cover all products that result in microbeads being washed down the drain and therefore that might enter the marine environment, including ‘leave-on’ makeup, sunscreen and cleaning products.

Respondents from the cosmetic industry also suggested that some companies could require up to 90% of their product portfolios to be reformulated in order to adhere to the new rules regarding microbeads. Reformulation is an expensive and time-consuming process for brands to undertake, they argued, which could have significant cost implications for the entire industry. Moreover, such implications could damage global competitiveness, restrict consumer choice and would result in a large number of products going to landfill if brands were not given sufficient time to reformulate.

After the UK Government announced that it was going to introduce the microbeads ban in June last year, the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CPTA) called for the restrictions to be limited to only cleansing and exfoliating products in a stakeholder submission made to the European Commission.

“There is no scientific evidence to support the need for any ban to go beyond the scope of those article the industry has already volunteered to remove from rinse-off cosmetic products, namely solid plastic microbeads used for cleansing or exfoliating,” it said. “CTPA is therefore seeking to have the scope of the UK ban brought into line with the scientific evidence and with bans enacted elsewhere in the EU and globally.

Biodegradable microbead innovations to counter environmental concerns

Unlike countries such as the US, which have loopholes in legislation to allow the use of biodegradable plastics, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK made it clear that biodegradable microbeads will be covered by the ban. Campaigners welcomed the decision as they claim that there is insufficient evidence to prove that bio-plastics degrade quickly enough to prevent damage to marine ecosystems.

As it stands, there are currently no agreed standards for biodegradability in the marine environment. While materials may be labelled compostable or biodegradable, they often require specific conditions to break down which are not often found deep in the marine environment, as such many plastic items break down into smaller pieces, but do not break down completely.

However, a research team from Bath University’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) claims to have developed a way of producing a renewable biodegradable alternative to plastic microbeads in a scalable, continuous manufacturing process. The beads are comprised of cellulose, the material that makes up the robust fibres found in wood and plant life. To manufacturer the ‘beads’, researchers from the university dissolved the cellulose and reformed it into tiny pellets which are then set.

According to the results published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, these alternatives to microbeads are strong enough to remain stable in a body wash, but unlike plastic mircobeads, they can be broken down by organisms at the sewage treatment works or in the environment over a short period of time. Moreover, researchers involved in the study believe that they could use cellulose from a variety of renewable ‘waste’ sources to make the biodegradable pellets, including raw waste from the paper making industry.

“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,” explained Dr Janet Scott, reader in the Department of Chemistry and part of the CSCT. “We’ve developed a way of making microbeads from cellulose, which is not only from a renewable source, but also biodegrades into harmless sugars. We hope in the future these could be used as a direct replacement for plastic microbeads.”

What impact will the ban have on the overall problem of plastic pollution?

Many companies have already taken voluntary steps to eliminate the use of microbeads in products. In 2013, Johnson & Johnson became one of the first companies to commit to removing microbeads from its cosmetic and personal care products globally. The first phase of product reformulation was completed in 2015, after which the company met its commitment to remove microbeads from its products globally at the end of 2017.

Procter & Gamble has also pledged to stop using microbeads in its product ranges. In 2017, the brand announced that it would be reformulating its facial/ body cleansers and toothpaste products to eliminate the use of microbeads, extending the 99% of its global product volume claimed to already be microbead-free with what it called an “exit plan” for the remaining uses which is set to be completed by mid-2018.

Cosmetics manufacturers in the UK have been working since 2015 on a voluntary plan to remove beads from products. Colgate-Palmolive phased out microbeads in 2014, followed by Boots and Unilever in 2015. In fact, according to the CTPA, the overwhelming majority of plastic microbeads have already been removed from products sold in the UK.

But even with the new ban in place, there are a wide variety of products that can continue to use microplastics, including lipsticks and sun creams as well as product ranges that are now designed to wash off. While the new rules may reduce the number of microbeads entering the marine environment, significant concerns have been raised about the overall effectiveness of the ban and whether addressing individual issues like microbeads will have a significant impact on the scale of the plastics problem.