Microbeads were one of the great recent innovations in the personal care industry. We were told that they were fantastic for dental health and exfoliation (no manky loofahs stinking up the shower). They also inspired beauty tips backed up by brilliant marketing but not necessarily science.
Then the science started to kick in, and it was not pretty: Those microbeads, often less than 1 millimeter in size, were not necessarily filtered out by wastewater facilities. Instead, they ended up in streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. Along the way, they have a knack for picking up pesticides and other toxins, and then becoming eaten by small creatures. If those tiny creatures did not starve to death because their digestive systems were clogged with plastic, then they were eaten by bigger creatures, then even larger creatures and then, eventually, humans, who thought they only ordered fish for dinner but had a good chance of also ingesting a small dose of microbeads.
The problem with microbeads reached a point where Illinois banned them from personal care products last year after research suggested the Great Lakes were rife with this plastic pollution. California and New York have passed similar bans, and similar legislation is underway in Ohio, Michigan and New Jersey. But a partnership between the bioplastics firm Metabolix and Honeywell, announced yesterday, could find a solution to the pesky microbead dilemma that in turn could benefit consumers, companies and the environment.
In a phone interview, Max Senechal, vice president of strategy and commercial development for Metabolix, explained how these microbeads are different.
The key is that the microbeads that Metabolix will provide Asensa, the personal care additives division of Honeywell, are made out of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) biopolymers. Unlike conventionally produced microbeads, which have a base of polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) or nylon (the chemical make up of these materials alone should have raised a few eyebrows here and there), this PHA-based option is biodegradable. Why?
PHAs are generally derived from lipids or fats. In the case of Metabolix’s product, corn dextrose is the feedstock the company is using for now. “It’s essentially a fermented product, a polyester made from fermentation, which can then be turned into a polymer,” Senechal said when I asked how this product was different from others on the market. “But PHAs have a similar composition to cellulose or paper.” Hence their ability to break down exponentially quicker than plastic microbeads.
According to at least one study, these microbeads can biodegrade 80 percent within 14 to 18 days in water and in soil. They attract bacteria that see them as a source of food, hastening the biodegrading process. The microbeads are also compostable and do not release toxic substances once they enter a marine environment.
Whether these PHA-based microbeads will truly be a viable alternative remains to be seen — after all, it took years until the environmental effects of conventional microbeads were understood. Indeed, some environmental watchdogs are going to fret over the 20 percent that does not biodegrade in two or three weeks. But Metabolix and Honeywell could score themselves a booming business as more states act to ban the use of conventional plastic-based microbeads while companies scramble to find a substitute for a tiny ingredient that turned into a big problem.
Image credit: Metabolix
Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.