Microbeads‘ detriment to the environment is well-documented, yet many companies continue to put the tiny plastic spheres in their products. Scientists at the University of Bath came up with a solution. They created microbeads from cellulose instead, and their alternative is both biodegradable and renewable.


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One shower can pollute the ocean with 100,000 plastic particles, according to an estimate cited by the University of Bath. These plastic microbeads less than five millimeters in size are way too small to be filtered out by sewage filtration systems, and from sunscreens, toothpastes, or cosmetics end up in the ocean. Fish, birds, and other marine creatures then consume them. Researchers think from there, the microbeads may be entering our food supply.

Related: Greenpeace identifies brands that are still polluting oceans with microbeads

So a research team at the university developed a way to continuously make biodegradable microbeads. They dissolve cellulose and reform it into beads, by making droplets that are set. They say their process is scalable, and they can draw cellulose from waste products such as those from the paper-making industry. These waste products offer a renewable source of cellulose.

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Their biodegradable microbeads will stay stable in a body wash, but at sewage treatment facilities can be broken down by organisms. Or the beads will break down in a short period of time if they do make it into the wider environment. Scientist Janet Scott said they’ll biodegrade into harmless sugars.

She said in a statement, “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 hope in the future these [microbeads] could be used as a direct replacement for plastic microbeads.”

The journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering published a study on the research online the end of May. A team led by Scott just received more than £1 million, around $1.2 million, in funding to develop porous beads, microsponges, and capsules from the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council.

Via the University of Bath

Images via University of Bath