UK scientists have created biodegradable, sustainable, microbeads which they say could reduce plastic pollution in our oceans. Jim Drury reports.
Many scientists want to ban plastic-based microbeads found in some cosmetic products. Once flushed away, they bypass water filtration systems and reach the sea, entering the food chain. But these ones made at the University of Bath come from biodegradable cellulose. Cellulose is the material that forms the strong fibres found in wood and plants. SOUNDBITE (English) DR JANET SCOTT, READER, UNIVERSITY OF BATH, SAYING: "If you were washing yourself once a day with the microbeads containing formulation to give you that nice smooth glow that you get when you use an abrasive formulation, you would be putting something like 80 to 100,000 microbeads down the drain every time you did that....So we would be replacing all of those with something that would biodegrade. Because of the ways cellulose degrades it should degrade in the waste water treatment plant. It shouldn't even make it into the oceans." Beads can be made harder or softer by changing the cellulose structure. SOUNDBITE (English) DAVIDE MATTIA, PROFESSOR OF CHEMICAL ENGINEERING, UNIVERSITY OF BATH, SAYING: "With this project we use a relatively small membrane. This is about one centimetre in diameter, roughly 10 centimetres of active area. This membrane itself contains millions of pores, meaning we're making millions of droplets, millions of microbeads. But this is too small for an industrial scale process." That's where UK firm Micropore Technologies comes in. It's using stainless steel membranes to scale up production. SOUNDBITE (English) DAVID PALMER, BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT MANAGER FOR MICROPORE TECHNOLOGIES, SAYING: "Our technology allows us to tailor very well the particle size and particle size distribution, but at industrial meaningful flow rates. So instead of millilitres per hour we're talking litres per hour." Generating cellulose from waste sources, like the paper industry, would make the technology renewable. The team is also developing micro sponges and microcapsules used in items like cleaning products or agrochemicals.