PVA is Plastic

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Laundry Pods and Laundry Sheets that list Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA or PVOH) as an ingredient contain plastic.

Many people using laundry pods and strips think that these products contain zero plastic. Several brands state loudly, and incorrectly, that they contain ‘zero plastic’ while also listing PVA as an ingredient. We aim to clear things up: if there is PVA or PVOH in the ingredients, there is plastic. 

Plenty of people know that the outer coating of a laundry pod does in fact contain PVA, but some may not realize that it can also be found in laundry sheets. Both products often contain Polyvinyl Alcohol, which is a water soluble plastic. 

At Meliora Cleaning Products, we do not use PVA, PVOH, or other plastics as a product ingredient.

Does PVA plastic break down safely for the planet? We review  the latest study results.

PVA, also called PVOH, is a dissolvable plastic that is used in many applications including laundry and dishwasher pods. A recent study, Polyvinyl Alcohol in US Wastewater Treatment Plants and Subsequent Nationwide Emission Estimate [1], has concluded that the PVA used for these products does not readily biodegrade during wastewater treatment.

The term ‘biodegradable’ means that a plastic, or other material, can be biodegraded in appropriate environments. This does not mean the plastic will be biodegraded in real life, since wastewater treatment facilities may not exist or be capable of breaking down the specific type of plastic sent there. Laundry pods made of biodegradable PVA are still made of plastic and should be labeled as plastic.

Fun Fact: Water soluble does not mean the PVA disappears or changes into non-plastic components when it touches water. Sugar is also water soluble, but you can certainly taste it after it has dissolved in your drink.

About 75% of PVA used does NOT degrade in wastewater treatment plants in the USA[1]. 

While PVA has the potential to biodegrade into simple byproducts (carbon dioxide and water), a large amount of the PVA used today does not experience the conditions necessary to do so. This is similar to plastics that are recyclable in theory, but do not get recycled in practice [2]. PVA/PVOH breakdown happens most readily in an environment that has certain specific temperature, microbes, and other environmental conditions. 

However,  the typical operations at wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) in the United States do not contain conditions for readily breaking down PVA. While it is possible to set up these treatment plants to accommodate PVA, those conditions are not standard and would require cities to upgrade their treatment systems to fully remove PVA from the water.

Fun Fact: The US uses a lot of PVA! About 17,000 metric tons (over 37 million pounds!) of polyvinyl alcohol is used annually[1].

PVA-based products (laundry pods, dishwashing pacs, laundry strips) release plastic into the environment.

Generally speaking, anything washed down the drains in your home will go into the local sewage system, arriving at a WWTP. Once there, this sewage will go through various levels of treatment, separating solids from liquid waste, and removing contaminants from the waste water until it is considered safely reclaimed and released to the environment as either liquid effluent (water released after being treated) or solid waste (biosolids). 

The released effluent water contains PVA that was not properly/thoroughly processed during treatment. Whether the PVA bypasses the WWTP and is directly released, or is released through effluent, it ends up in the environment in rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Another part of this water treatment process involves the removal of sludge as biosolids. If PVA has not biodegraded completely in the WWTP, a portion of it is removed with the solids.  Once deemed “safe,” the sludge is incinerated, sent to the landfill, or reused for agricultural purposes. To visualize where the PVA goes and how much is remaining after various steps, see Figure 4 from the recently published study[1] .

Fun Fact: 50-60% of treated biosolids are used for agricultural purposes[1]. 

Figure 4 is from the latest study on PVA breakdown in WWTP [1].

PVA does not fit within our People- and Planet-Friendly standards

Yes, our standards are high. Really high! We use a strict third party certifier[3] to screen all of our ingredients to ensure the lowest possible human and environmental health impact. We don’t use single-use plastics anywhere in our product line. 

To us, wrapping each individual load of laundry detergent in plastic is the opposite of that commitment. 

Using PVA plastic pods and sheets is a great example of an unfortunate material substitution. Although these products result in fewer obvious plastic jugs on the grocery store shelf and in your laundry room, they trade the plastic jug for plastic PVA directly inside the pod or sheet. 

Here at Meliora Cleaning Products, “less plastic” and “plastic in a different form” just isn’t good enough, because we know that we can do better.  Our retail laundry options are 100% plastic- free. That means free of plastic and free of misleading plastic-free claims.

Wait! You’re a laundry product company. Aren’t you biased?

All Laundry and cleaning product companies bring bias to discussions about what materials to use in laundry products. 

At Meliora Cleaning Products, we would have loved to hear that PVA/PVOH is an always-biodegraded and super gentle on the environment material to use, because then we could have made products with it! We have been seeing customers talk about how convenient pods and strips are, and as a company, we love making products that are convenient, as long as they also meet our criteria for being planet-friendly. 

So, we were bummed to hear that this frequently-used material may in fact be too good to be true and is not as planet-friendly as advertised. Back when we looked into using it ourselves, we asked a lot of questions from the PVA/PVOH suppliers about how, exactly, it broke down in the environment and how we could be sure it was a material we would feel proud to manufacture. We did not get any good answers to our questions, so we decided not to pursue using PVA. 

What does all of this mean for me?

If you avoid plastic microbeads in cosmetics (which are often flushed down the drain, too), and you’re worried about microplastics released by clothing, you should also be concerned about the plastics released from the use of PVA.

We are glad to see this new study spark a discussion on the use of plastic PVA in laundry and cleaning products, and we think more brands and customers will be looking to move away from PVA as the use and breakdown of various plastics is better understood. 

As Maya Angelou’s famous phrase tells us, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” 

When we know better, we do better. At Meliora Cleaning Products we will continue our journey of assessing all available ingredients and packaging materials and offering only the best for people and the planet. 


Citation: 

[1] Rolsky, C.; Kelkar, V. Degradation of Polyvinyl Alcohol in US Wastewater Treatment Plants and Subsequent Nationwide Emission Estimate. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18, 6027. https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/18/11/6027

[2] Geyer, Roland; Jambeck, Jenna; Law, Kara Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made Science Advances 2017/07/01 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318567844_Production_use_and_fate_of_all_plastics_ever_made

[3] MADESAFE.org



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