Unilever to phase out microbeads

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Personal-care products giant Unilever NV will phase out the use of plastic microbeads 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 microbeads 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, Netherlands, said that plastics in the ocean is an “important issue,” and that the company had reviewed its use of microbeads in its portfolio of current and future products.

The company will phase out the use of microbeads over the coming years, completely eliminating their use in 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 of microplastics to follow Unilever’s lead and phase out their use. Other microbead users include Johnson & Johnson, Neutrogena Corp. and Procter & Gamble Co., 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 last summer, he said.

Eriksen noted that other alternatives already exist to plastic microbeads, such as ground-up apricot pits, which naturally break down.