February 8, 2024
Most people don’t realize that all laundry and dishwasher detergent pods and—a newer format—dissolvable sheets, are wrapped in a petroleum-based plastic called Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA or PVOH). While PVA may dissolve in water into smaller pieces that may not be readily visible, it does not actually disappear. Instead, these smaller plastic particles persist in our environment as microplastics and nanoplastics. Research shows that ~75% of intact plastic particles from laundry detergent pods are released into our oceans, rivers and soil (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2021). Why? Because the conditions needed to completely degrade this plastic are extremely specific and don’t exist in most all wastewater treatment plants or the natural environment.
Once PVA is released into wastewater, it has the potential to adsorb dangerous chemicals and contaminants, antibiotics, and heavy metals and work its way back up our food chain.. PVA has recently been found among other microplastics in drinking water and human breast milk. PVA is the plastic film used to wrap all single-dose laundry and dishwasher detergent pods. When you toss a laundry pod into your washing machine, the plastic goes down our drains and pollutes our environment. While PVA might not be visible to the human eye, it’s still contributing to our current plastic crisis at a massive scale.
Councilmember James Gennaro, a seasoned environmental lawmaker and advocate for clean water, has introduced the Pods Are Plastic Bill in New York City. This bill would make it unlawful for any person or entity to sell, distribute, offer for sale, or possess for the purpose of sale within New York City, any laundry or dishwasher detergent pods and sheets that contain Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA). Any covered establishment in violation of this will be liable to pay a fine that increases per violation.
An estimated 20 billion pods are sent down our drains into our water each year in the U.S. alone. However, all companies—conventional and natural—that sell pods or sheets come individually wrapped in PVA, a synthetic, petroleum-based plastic film. As one of the most widely used cleaning formats, plastic pods have the potential to become a ubiquitous pollutant in the future if not immediately stopped. This plastic is also woven into all single-dose dissolvable detergent sheets—a newer format of single-use detergent. It’s up to us to take action to prevent the potential impact of PVA on human and environmental health.
What is the Pods are Plastic Bill?
This bill would make it unlawful for any person or entity to sell, distribute, offer for sale, or possess for the purpose of sale within New York City, any laundry or dishwasher detergent pods and sheets that contain Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA). This bill is introduced by Councilmember James Gennaro, a seasoned environmental lawmaker and advocate for clean water. You can view the full bill here.
What is PVA?
PVA, also known as Polyvinyl Alcohol or PVOH, is a synthetic, petroleum-based plastic. While PVA may dissolve in water into smaller pieces that may not be readily visible, it does not actually disappear. Instead, these smaller plastic particles persist in our environment as microplastics and nanoplastics. PVA is one of the most ubiquitous wastewater pollutants in the U.S.
Why is PVA bad?
PVA is a plastic that is not readily biodegradable and persists, polluting our environment and contaminating our water. The plastic particles from pods go down the drain into our water systems and to wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) that do not have the ability to biodegrade PVA. Research estimates that ~75% of intact plastic particles from laundry detergent pods are released into our oceans, rivers, and soil.
What are the health risks of PVA?
Once PVA is released into wastewater, it has the potential to adsorb dangerous chemicals and contaminants, antibiotics, and heavy metals and work its way back up our food chain. In a recent study, PVA was found to have the highest adsorption capacity for lead and cadmium of all of the microplastics studied. Compounds such as biocides, insecticides, herbicides, flame retardants, heavy metals, antibiotics and pharmaceuticals are present in wastewater. Some of these are proven carcinogens, and PVA could act as a vector for transport up the food chain.
PVA has recently been found among other microplastics in drinking water and human breast milk. PVA has also been shown to significantly impact fish health, including growth rate, metabolic rate and ability to fight infection. While there is not yet any research on PVA impact to human health, PVA is concerning given its very measurable impact on fish health, as well as its proven ability to act as carriers for toxins like lead and cadmium.
How does PVA relate to Laundry Pods and Sheets?
PVA is the plastic film used to wrap all single-dose laundry and dishwasher detergent pods. This plastic is also woven into all single-dose dissolvable detergent sheets—a newer format. An estimated 20 billion pods are sent down our drains into our water each year in the U.S. alone!
What does this mean for customers who buy pods?
Taking plastic pods and sheets off the market will not make it more expensive or inaccessible for consumers. There are many alternative formats, including liquid, powder and tablet detergents, that are not only more widely available and used, but also more affordable than pods. Liquid detergent, for example, is by far the most widely used format by consumers and has been around longer. There are also alternative single-dose formats that do not use PVA or require any plastic packaging at all. Laundry pods are also more expensive than traditional powder and liquid detergent, and companies offering plastic-free solutions are similarly priced.
Have the health effects of PVA been researched on humans?
PVA has been shown to measurably impact fish health, including growth rate, metabolic rate and ability to fight infection. There is not yet any research on PVA impact to human health, but it is concerning given its impact on fish. PVA’s proven ability to act as carriers to other toxins like cadmium and lead is also concerning given PVA has many opportunities to adsorb harmful substances as it spends time in wastewater and the environment.
Why has PVA been claimed by companies as biodegradable?
The lab testing methods that have been relied on to substantiate biodegradability (the OECD series) are specifically designed and optimized to support degradation of PVA and are vastly different from the conditions that actually exist in most all WWTPs. For example, very specific microbes need to be present to degrade PVA, but these microbes simply don’t exist at most all WWTPs or in the natural environment. PVA needs to be exposed to these microbes for 28+ days (vs. the 2-3 days that PVA/water typically spends in a WWTP).
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