Plastic is versatile, robust and relatively inexpensive to produce. These attractive qualities led industries to adopt the material with enthusiasm. However, its strengths are also its downfall, as plastic materials ultimately become waste with significant staying power. This has led to a very public clampdown on plastic pollution, which has most recently manifested as a ban on microbeads in the UK.

Microbeads, or microplastics, can be defined as minute pieces of plastic (0.1 to 0.5 millimetres in size), that are used to give personal care products such as toothpaste, shower gels, and body scrubs a grainy texture for exfoliation. While appearing harmless, these microbeads flow into oceans and rivers, where they do not biodegrade, thus contributing to the global plastic pollution of the world’s waters. Environmental agencies have also warned of the harmful effects on marine life and aquatic ecosystems that occur when certain species of fish mistake the beads for food.

In an effort to mitigate this problem, the US banned plastic microbeads in 2015, which inspired a pledge made in 2016 by the UK government to follow suit. In early January 2018, the long-promised action came into effect, banning the manufacture of products including microbeads, while the sale of such products will be disallowed from July. This resonated particularly well with sustainability-minded UK consumers, 62% of whom believe that living an ethical or sustainable lifestyle is important or very important in creating a feeling of wellbeing or wellness, according to GlobalData’s 2016 primary consumer research. So, how will manufacturers address this legislation?

Manufacturers respond

While the industry has been quick to make claims of self-regulation, with certain brands stating that they had been phasing microbeads out of their products voluntarily, there are several alternatives to microbeads that brands still hurrying to innovate can consider. Natural exfoliants such as oats, coarse salt, coffee grounds and sugar are becoming increasingly popular in the personal care sector, which very much coincides with the transference of ingredients from the food and drink sector into this space, and in some cases, demonstrates the cross-sector utilisation of food waste within product formulations.

From a broader perspective, what this ban demonstrates is not just the shift beyond plastic towards more sustainable materials, but also reinforces that innovation does not always occur through happenstance or creativity – it can also occur through legislation and necessity of change.

Brands must be proactive in dealing with social, economic, and environmental issues as they arise to allow appropriate time for innovation to occur, and not to be startled by legislative proposals. Dettol, for example, has launched a shower gel containing ‘natural apricot beads’ in Hong Kong, despite local governments not yet having banned microbeads, demonstrating a hands-on approach to environmental issues and the protection of its triple bottom line.

As the environmental impacts of plastic pollution are becoming clearer, government, business and consumers must continue to recognise the importance of their efforts toward mitigating environmental damage and encouraging sustainability focussed initiatives.