TechConnect Innovation Spotlight: Environmentally Safe Plastic Microbeads for Cosmetics

January 23, 2014 08:42 PM EST By: Sarah Wenning

College of William & Mary, TechConnect World-National Innovation Summit 2013 Awardee, Washington, D.C.

TechConnect recently had a chance to speak with Dr. Jason McDevitt, Director of the Technology Transfer Office, The College of William & Mary. Dr. McDevitt presented William & Mary’s biodegradable microbead innovation at the 2013 TechConnect World-National Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C.

Non-degradable plastic microbeads are found in cosmetics and toiletries products worldwide and wash into the world’s oceans where they can persist for decades, even centuries, and are ingested by marine animals. Researchers at The College of William & Mary have developed biodegradable, ocean-safe microbeads that quickly degrade and are a drop-in replacement for non-degradable microbeads.

Plastic (typically polyethylene) microbeads are widely used in the cosmetic industry because they improve the feel of products (think of micro ball bearings) and they are effective at hiding wrinkle lines via optical blurring. While great for cosmetics, they are an environmental nightmare, ingested by marine animals from zooplankton to mussels to whales. A major cosmetic company has recently announced that it will no longer use polyethylene microbeads in its cosmetic products, and it is actively seeking suitable alternatives.

Now, a grant to researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), The College of William & Mary, will help them develop and test a biodegradable replacement for one of the two main sources of microplastic—the “microbeads” found in scores of household products such as toothpaste, sunscreen, shampoo, soap, lip gloss, and moisturizers. Microplastics also form from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic trash.

The $60,000 grant, from the Virginia Innovation Partnership, was awarded to VIMS researchers Drs. Kirk Havens and assistant professor Donna Bilkovic. They will collaborate on the project with Dr. McDevitt, Charles Bott of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, and David Holbrook of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The merit of the project was recognized with a TechConnect Innovation Award during the 2013 TechConnect-National Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C.

“We had a terrific opportunity to present our work to a very diverse audience at the TechConnect 2013 event”, said McDevitt.  “As a direct result of our participation we were able to connect with potential partners and open up paths for future discussions.”

“We have developed an inexpensive, biodegradable, drop-in replacement for plastic microbeads. While there are many biodegradable plastics, very few actually degrade to monomeric precursors in marine environments (unlike compost heaps). We use PHA to make our microbeads, and PHA has been certified as safe for use in a marine environment (one of only two polymers, and the other is not well-suited for inexpensive production of free-flowing microbeads). We have extensive experience with PHA, and have commercialized a biodegradable cull ring panel for shellfish traps that prevents traps from continuing to fish after the trap is abandoned”, says McDevitt.

The project is now seeking a major commercial development partner/licensee with expertise in chemicals/plastics or consumer products.

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