Friday, January 4, 2013

Unilever to phase out micro plastics by 2015

Anglo-Dutch consumer giant Unilever says it is planning to phase out microplastics from a number of its personal care ranges by the year 2015, in response to increasing awareness over environmental concerns. This comes after growing evidence from marine scientists and environmental groups that microplastic particles are accumulating in the ocean, causing considerable environmental perils to a range of marine life and eco systems

Evidence on micro beads points to ocean pollution

The company said that it had reviewed the growing evidence on micro beads from its own product portfolio and that it has consequently decided to take action on micro beads for all current ranges and a number of products in the pipeline. Micro plastics have been used in a range of soaps, scrubs and shower gels as a means of giving exfoliating and texture qualities to formulations.

"We have decided to phase out the use of plastic micro beads as a 'scrub' material in all of our personal care products. We expect to complete this phase globally by 2015", the company said in an official statement.

Poor biogdegredation of micro plastics

Scientific evidence suggests that micro plastics are slow to biodegrade, leading to long lasting accumulation and pollution in both waterways and oceans once waste water is discarded. The research also shows that the discarded micro plastics can be ingested by a very wide range of marine organisms, with evidence pointing to deposit-feeing lugworms and filter-feeding mussels as demonstrating ingestion of the substance.

Scientists have also pointed out that, unlike other plastic-based pollutions, because micro-plastic particles are only around 5mm in diameter, assessing their exact impact on the environment is particularly difficult.

In 2010, Unilever unveiled a sustainability strategy that aims to halve the company's environmental impact, while simultaneously doubling the size of the business by 2020. Unilever says its products are used by some two billion people every day, so their phase-out could have a big environmental benefit.

Unilever’s announcement is a step in the right direction, but the environmental impact of these tiny plastic pieces remains unclear, and they can still be found in other beauty products. More research will need to be done on how microplastics affect the animals that ingest them, and the larger role they may play in the food web. In the meantime, washing less plastic down the drain can’t be a bad thing.

For more information on micro plastic beads, watch this video from the Plastic Soup Foundation. You can also sign their petition to help ban cosmetics with micro beads in them.

Photo courtesy of Moyan_Brenn via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)