BY AMY ZIFF, MA
Convenience is often the reason we buy certain products. Take dishwasher and laundry pods or “sheets.” Do we need them? Truthfully, we could measure out powder or liquid detergent, but these small household helpers have become cleaning staples in many homes due to their ease of use. All you need to do is pop one of these pods, tabs, sheets or strips into your machine – no measuring – and voilà: spotless dishes or clean clothes. These human-made modern miracles not only save you time, but in the end, you’re left with… nothing! Hallelujah!
But do they really disappear?
THE DISAPPEARING ACT
These pods and sheets are made of polyvinyl alcohol also known as PVA, PVOH, and PVAI, a synthetic plastic polymer that is marketed as a safer solution because it is water-soluble and therefore dissolves and disappears down the drain.
But when it comes to these products, the disappearing act is just that – an act. The plastic surrounding the pod, or that makes up the paper-like material into which the detergent has been infused, actually breaks apart into pieces so small the human eye can’t see them. In so doing, the infinitesimal particles wash right down the drain. They do a darn good job of vanishing.
But do they really disappear?
The best description that I’ve found for thinking about PVA is to compare it to dissolving salt or sugar in water. You can’t see the salt or sugar once it’s dissolved but if you drink the water, you can taste that the sugar or salt is still there. Similarly, the PVA substances dissolve but they don’t disappear, and like all plastics, they just don’t inherently degrade in the natural world.
When that pod or sheet “dissolves” and is washed down the drain, those plastic particles are free to move through the sewage system. From there, they typically enter the wastewater treatment plant. The problem is that most polyvinyl alcohol is not degraded in wastewater treatment plants because most facilities lack this capability.
Dr. Charlie Rolsky studies plastic pollution in marine environments at the Shaw Institute and is also the Director of Science at Plastic Oceans. Rolsky co-authored a study of PVA materials with Varun Kelkar, which determined that approximately 75% of PVA from detergent pods goes untreated by wastewater treatment plants. Based on their calculations, Rolsky writes:
“We’re talking over eight thousand tons of PVA going into the environment, every year, originating from these detergent pods. That equates to 600 million plastic soda bottles worth of plastic, yearly. Because of the water solubility, it’s broken down into very small particles that quickly becomes a solution that can easily pass through water treatment and enter the food chain, working its way up, potentially reaching top-tiered predators, such as human beings.”
The Rolsky PVA study reviewed and analyzed literature from the last 70 years in order to determine how and where the particles from PVA go. After they leave the wastewater treatment plant, largely untreated, the polyvinyl alcohol particles exit the system, enter our environment’s waterways as sewage sludge, or settle in soils due to agricultural use of biosolids, and more. Regardless of their path from the wastewater treatment plant, all of these plastic particles become part of our massive plastic pollution problem.
While PVA passes industry biodegradation tests and thus is marketed as biodegradable, it’s not, at least not under normal conditions. The conditions in the biodegradation tests do not reflect real-life scenarios for the environmental fate of PVA, and there is very little data on the biodegradability of PVA in the natural environment. In other words, while PVA can biodegrade, it does not biodegrade in the natural world.
In other words, once these plastic particles are floating in the waterways, these small fragments of PVA can make their way into our food chain. Studies show that this is what happens. So even if the packaging or advertising for the product you purchase implies the plastic will disappear, be dubious. Hearkening back to the sugar or salt example, even if you can’t see it, it’s there.
While there’s a clear need for more study on PVA and how it behaves, we know enough to know we don’t have to wait to act.
TAKING ON PLASTIC POLLUTION
We have a massive plastic pollution problem on this planet, with more than 9 billion tons created in the last 70 years, and we aren’t going to make it go away without taking action. We also aren’t going to get rid of it until we can rightly name all forms of plastics. PVA is plastic. PVA is persistent. Which means those handy dishwasher and laundry pods or sheets need to be part of the plastic pollution conversation.
We are living on a plastic planet of our own making. Part of how we got here was deceptive marketing by the more than $590 billion/year plastics industry. It’s time to hold companies accountable to the impact of plastics on our health and our environment and demand truly safer solutions. Use your dollars to support products that prioritize sustainability. Tell your legislators that you want laws curtailing plastic pollution too.
To get started, we need products that have been screened by a process that takes into consideration the entire ecosystem – like the MADE SAFE® Ecosystem Approach – to ensure that the products are safe to deploy on a global scale before they are sent to market.
To start finding solutions to our current plastic pollution crisis we will have to take on the problem of microplastics. Reducing the use of, and ultimately curtailing the production of PVA is one part of the solution.
When it comes to avoiding PVA and other plastics in household goods:
- Avoid products sold in a “dissolvable” pod, tab or sheet. While they may dissolve, they don’t degrade and they contribute to water pollution.
- Don’t fall for deceptive marketing of “degradable” plastics, which can’t break down under normal home conditions, within wastewater treatment plants, or aren’t recyclable in typical municipal programs.
- Look for products like laundry detergent, cleaners and dishwasher detergent that are concentrated. Products that come in smaller packages or can be diluted with water at home cut down on the financial and environmental cost of shipping.
- Find powder detergents that are packaged without plastic.
- Look for thoughtfully packaged items that are truly compostable such as unbleached paper, cardboard, mycelium (mushroom fungi), cellulose (wood pulp) or glass.
- Look for products that require fewer chemicals and less packaging overall.
- Ask the companies you buy from to do better. Write them on social media and ask how they are addressing packaging and chemical pollution issues. If they want to do better, tell them MADE SAFE and Nontoxic Certified are here to help!
- Branch Basics – Offers concentrated laundry solutions
- healthybaby – Offers concentrated laundry solutions
- Meliora Cleaning Products – Offers a variety of entirely plastic-free laundry solutions
- Pure Natural Cleaners – Offers liquid laundry solutions in PVA-free delivery
- Meliora Cleaning Products – Offers plastic-free dishwashing solutions for hand washing dishes
- Pure Natural Cleaners – Offers liquid dish detergent
Blueland is another company working with MADE SAFE that is opposed to PVA.
Want to learn more about how you can take action on global plastic pollution? Check out these resources:
- Chemicals in Plastic
- Healthy Pregnancy Guide
- Microplastics in Clothing
- Quitting Single-Use Plastics
- Tips for Plastic-Free Living
- Wipes and Plastic Pollution
Amy Ziff is the Founder and Executive Director of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Nontoxic Certified. MADE SAFE® is a program of Nontoxic Certified.
A healthy living educator with a genetic predisposition to toxicity, Amy is also mom to three young kids who share the same trait. Determined to make the world less toxic, Amy reached millions of parents and caregivers with her “buy better” advocacy campaigns. She blogs about the chemical world we live in on Amy Ziff’s NoTox Life, and prior to founding MADE SAFE, taught classes on living a nontoxic life and co-founded the Veritey Shop, a site comprised of safe, nontoxic products. Amy is changing the world for the healthier one product at a time, one person at a time, one home at a time.
Amy has a Masters in Journalism and Communications and has been a successful internet entrepreneur. She was on the founding team of Site59 where she pioneered the first luxury business line for travel on the web. When Site59 was acquired by Travelocity, she ran a national sales team and then founded an award-winning media program, blog, and travel seal that garnered millions of dollars of “earned media” annually, and also founded the company’s award-winning cause marketing program. Amy went on to cofound and become creative director of Jetsetter, the first online flash-sale for high-end travel.