Potential Global Ban on Plastic Microbeads Opens Up New Opportunities

Four years after Unilever pioneered the phasing out of plastic microbeads in 2012 in response to increasing environmental concerns about pollution of the ocean, other global players are making a voluntary commitment to get rid of them in the short-term. Some governments have even introduced relevant legislation. In fact, the US has just approved a bill that prohibits the distribution of products containing plastic microbeads by 2017 and a complete ban on sales by 2018. It is just a matter of time before the EU follows suit. This will create new business opportunities for companies that manufacture alternative ingredients.

Moving towards a global ban

The overall picture regarding legislation is quite mixed, due to differences in public and political awareness between rapidly growing emerging economies and the major industrialised countries. North America, which according to Euromonitor International accounts for 20% of worldwide polyethylene (PE) consumption in beauty and personal care (BPC) products, introduced new legislation banning microplastics from rinse-off cosmetics in 2015. By contrast, there is no existing legislation in Europe, which is responsible for almost 50% of worldwide consumption of PE in BPC products. EU legislation has thus far been focussed on the fragmentation of bigger plastics rather than taking specific action on primary microplastics. Due to this lack of regional legislation, Austria, The Netherlands, Sweden, Luxembourg and Belgium have decided to issue a joint call to support a European ban. Not satisfied with that, the Swedish Chemicals Agency has recently said yes to banning rinse-off cosmetics containing plastic microbeads from January 2018 onwards, to protect the aquatic environment.

A delay in a global ban is expected, however, due to the fewer environmental concerns in Middle East and Africa, Latin America and Asia Pacific, which together account for 30% of worldwide PE use in BPC products.

Alternatives to replace microplastic beads

Major cosmetic companies have actively worked ahead of legislation to explore alternatives to microplastic beads and address environmental concerns. There is no perfect solution, and a spectrum of alternatives is on the table, ranging from promising synthetic ingredients such as silica, cellulose and bio-polymers, to attractive natural ingredients made from seeds, fruits and flowers, or even common everyday products such as salt or sugar.

Leading global BPC manufacturers are at different stages. Colgate-Palmolive has totally replaced PE in its toothpaste formulations with silica and Unilever has completed the phase-out globally, while Beiersdorf is using microcellulose, silica or hardened castor oil. Other companies such as Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson are still in the process of PE replacement. Major ingredients suppliers are also on the same page – Evonik and Solvay Silica provide different grades of silica microbeads while the UK-based company Lambson has recently developed a new technology that allows it to encase natural abrasives in microbeads to be used as PE replacements. This technology allows manufacturers to overcome some of the drawbacks of using natural ingredients as the new microbeads have enhanced stability and longevity as well as improved component compatibility and added visual and textural product differentiation.

Pressure for legislation on plastic microbeads is increasing in Europe which provides real opportunities for suppliers of alternative microbeads. As the market is still underdeveloped, there is plenty of room for innovation as demand for these ingredients is expected to rise substantially in the short to medium term. Manufacturers of BPC products need to pay attention to differences in legislation from region to region, with some legislation permitting bio-plastics while others prohibit the use of any type of plastic material due to uncertainty about the time-scale regarding biodegradability.