Read how funding from the Plastics Research and Innovation Fund (PRIF) helped Lucideon to launch a feasibility study to see whether polymers in microbeads can be replaced by environmentally friendly inorganic alternatives.
Despite the rise in public awareness of plastic microbeads, these environmental hazards are still present in many consumer cosmetics.
The UK issued a ban on microbeads in rinse-off products such as scrubs in June 2018, and the ban is expected to be extended to creams, liquids, and anything else containing microplastics imminently.
Although these plastics can have benefits for consumers (as they’re often very cheap and are non-allergenic), they can become a dangerous pollutant. When microbeads are washed into the sink, they enter the sewage system and bypass filters due to their small size, subsequently entering rivers and emptying into the world’s oceans. The tiny plastic particles then enter the food chain via marine ecosystems, damaging the health of marine animals and even altering their behaviour.
The innovative solution
Thanks in part to funding obtained through the Plastics Research and Innovation Fund (PRIF), Lucideon launched a nine-month feasibility study to assess whether polymers in microbeads can be replaced by environmentally friendly inorganic alternatives.
As Lucideon’s Senior Chemical Engineer Dr Gilda Gasparini explains “once they reach the waste water, the waste water treatments cannot filter them out and they end up in the ocean, the food chain or in the soil.”
Although there are natural alternatives to microplastics such as seeds, these tend to cause problems with allergies and are overly abrasive. For this reason, Lucideon focuses on glass and ceramics, which are environmentally friendly and are present in the sand, the ocean and the soil.
However, the engineering challenges present problems beyond creating the right size and shape, as cost is also an issue, with current alternatives being about “2,000% more expensive than microplastics”, according to Dr Gasparini.
Searching for an environmentally friendly solution
Lucideon plans to use inorganic materials already present in sand and soil as an alternative to the current largely polyethylene microbeads, avoiding the pollutant nature of plastic and the carbon it releases over its long degradation lifespan.
Although these natural alternatives could be dug out from the sand and soil naturally, this would not provide a very sustainable solution. Instead Lucideon are exploring how to create the materials synthetically in an environmentally friendly way, which also doesn’t involve high temperatures.
As Dr Gasparini explains, by using high temperature methods “you may be making an environmentally friendly material, but you are using a very energy-intensive process to get there, so instead we are looking at a low temperature approach to produce a non-pollutant material.”
The overall aim of the project is to match the size, shape and cost requirements from the industry, with an environmentally friendly product that is synthesised through an environmentally friendly process.
Widespread uptake and getting the industry on-board
Thanks to the funding, Lucideon can now work full time on the project, allowing them to move quickly as the imminent industry-wide ban looms.
Dr Gasparini hopes that “at the end of this nine-month project, [we will] have enough data to engage end users and the cosmetic industry to then take it to market.”
Looking to the future, Lucideon are hoping to produce at least 80 tonnes of microbeads by the time they go to market. Dr Gasparini hopes that there will be “about a 30% lower cost for the industry compared to microplastics.”
They also want to change consumer behaviour, as many end users are currently unaware of the many plastics in their everyday cosmetic creams.
In anticipation of growth, Lucideon has already added a presence in Switzerland and Austria this year and has ambitions to set up in America and Asia to bring their product to more markets.