The $60,000 grant, from the Virginia Innovation Partnership, was awarded to Dr Kirk Havens and assistant professor Donna Bilkovic to develop and test a biodegradable replacement for microbeads found in sunscreen, shampoo, soap, lip gloss, and moisturizers.
They will collaborate on the project with Drs Jason McDevitt, Director of William & Mary's Technology Transfer Office, Charles Bott of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, and David Holbrook of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
"Microplastics have become a big concern in the world's oceans and estuaries," says Havens. "We already know that larger plastic items can harm organisms by interfering with digestion or through strangulation.”
“A concern with microplastics is that they're even more widely dispersed, and small enough to be eaten by a much more diverse group of organisms. Once ingested, these compounds and anything they've absorbed can be magnified up the food chain."
Addressing the problem
To address the problem, Havens, Bilkovic, and colleagues Kory Angstadt and David Stanhope are working to develop microbeads from a family of naturally occurring ‘biopolyesters’ that are produced by several types of soil-dwelling bacteria.
Previous tests have shown that these compounds-known as PHAs-are completely biodegradable by microbes typically found in seawater, which break them down into water, carbon dioxide, and other simple molecules.
Equally important, the VIMS team claims that PHAs appear to have the properties needed for use in cosmetic products, including the ability to provide a slightly gritty feel for skin cleansers and toothpaste, and to reduce the appearance of wrinkles through ‘optical blurring.’
The researchers have already begun creating batches of microbeads in the laboratory; testing various formulations and processes for producing beads of different colour and size-from 1 to 100 microns.
"The idea," says Havens, "is that our microbeads will biodegrade quickly, within septic tanks, wastewater treatment plants, and smaller tributaries; before they ever reach the Bay. It's a proactive approach to reducing microplastic pollution."