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Unilever to phase out plastic micro beads

By: Rhoda Miel

December 28, 2012

LONDON (Updated Jan. 3, 11:20 a.m. ET) — Personal care products giant Unilever NV will phase out the use of plastic micro beads used as a “scrub” material following a call from environmental groups to eliminate them and help reduce the plastics in oceans and other waterways.

The environmental group 5 Gyres Institute has studied the impact plastic micro beads have on the environment. It wants the makers of facial cleansers to eliminate the tiny pieces of plastic, which are intended to help exfoliate the skin, because the beads are small enough to slip through waste treatment systems and end up in public watersheds.

In a brief statement, Unilever, based in London and Rotterdam, the Netherlands, said that the issue of plastics in the ocean is an “important issue,” and that it had reviewed its use of micro beads in its portfolio of current and future products.

The company will phase out its use over the coming years, and completely eliminate the use of microplastics for scrubs in 2015.

Marcus Eriksen, executive director of 5 Gyres, praised Unilever for its fast response and said the group will make formal requests to other users microplastics to follow Unilever’s lead and phase out their use. Other micro bead users include Johnson & Johnson, Neutrogena and Procter & Gamble, he said.

Plastic is a good material, Eriksen said in a Jan. 3 telephone interview, but its use as a facial scrubber makes no environmental sense. The beads — about a third of a millimeter — float and look like fish food and fish eggs, which makes them nearly impossible to clean out of the water once they slip through the wastewater process.

The group is about to publish the results of its study on microplastics in the Great Lakes conducted this summer, he said.

Eriksen also noted that other alternatives already exist to plastic micro beads, such as ground up apricot pits, which naturally break down. Those alternatives already are used by some small firms, he said.