EPSRC support to develop environmentally-friendly alternative to plastic microbeads

Supplementary content information

Microscope photo of microbeads

Microbeads

Biodegradable microbeads are being developed by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)-supported scientists at the University of Bath to replace harmful plastic ones.

It is believed that the microbeads made from polyethylene or polypropylene currently used in products such as cosmetics, toiletries and sunscreens can end up in our food as they are too small to be filtered out of waste by sewage filtration systems, and end up being ingested by animals once they reach our rivers and oceans.

Estimates show that up to 100,000 of the minute plastic particles can enter the ocean after a single shower, and the UK government has already pledged to ban plastic microbeads.

Experts at Bath's Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT), which hosts an EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training, say they have made a breakthrough that could lead to the widespread adoption of environmentally-friendly microbeads made from cellulose.

The project has received media coverage in outlets including the BBC, ITV, the Daily Mail, Times and the Daily Telegraph.

Dr Janet Scott, Reader in the Department of Chemistry and part of the CSCT, said: 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'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.

Davide Mattia, Professor of Chemical Engineering and part of the CSCT, said: Our goal was to develop a continuous process that could be scaled for manufacturing. We achieved this by working together from the start, integrating process design and chemistry optimisation, showing the strength of the multi-disciplinary approach we have in the CSCT.

A team led by Dr Scott, Professor Mattia and Professor Karen Edler has been awarded £1 million in funding by EPSRC to develop porous beads, capsules and microsponges. They will work with industry partners to develop the new materials for use in cosmetics, personal care products and for agricultural uses such as slow release fertilisers.

Reference: PN 31-17