• Business Business

Scientist raises concerns over apparent misleading marketing tactic from laundry detergent brands: 'That might come as a shock'

The scientist expressed her concern about how one of the ingredients is typically made from fossil fuels.

"Never buying those again."

Photo Credit: iStock

A concerning secret about laundry detergent pods is bubbling up on TikTok.

According to sustainability scientist Alaina Wood (@thegarbagequeen), those convenient little pods are wrapped in what some consider to be a form of plastic that doesn't biodegrade effectively.

@thegarbagequeen ⚠️GREENWASHING ALERT⚠️ Laundry detergent pods and sheets are wrapped in plastic that doesn't fully dissolve; it just breaks down into tiny plastic particles. An estimated 20 billion of these Polyvinyl Alcohol, or PVA, pods are sent down the drain each year in the United States alone, and although a strain of bacteria can biodegrade PVA under very specific conditions, it doesn't exist in the majority of wastewater treatment plants. New York City Councilmember James Gennaro introduced the Pods Are Plastic Bill that would make it illegal to sell both laundry and dishwasher pods and sheets that contain PVA. Check out the link in my bio to send a letter to your representative! #PodsArePlastic #Microplastics #PlasticWaste #PlasticPollution #Greenwashing ♬ original sound - Alaina Wood

In a recent video, Wood explains that polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA, used for pod casings and to hold laundry sheets together, is a petroleum-based product she says is worthy of calling a plastic. When pods go down the drain, she says, this pollutes the environment.

"That might come as a shock, considering pods are marketed as an eco-friendly alternative to liquid detergent jugs since they're single-dose and typically packaged in cardboard," Wood says in the video.

"But in reality, polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA, is a petroleum-based plastic that goes down your drain and pollutes our environment."

These claims were largely originated by a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which found evidence of the chemical in wastewater having not biodegraded and concluded that "research into truly eco-friendly substitutes for PVA is warranted and should be further explored." Sustainability-focused cleaning products company Blueland, which does not use PVA in its products, was cited as sponsoring the study.

The EPA, notably, has not considered PVA to be a problem, including it on its Safer Chemical Ingredients List, and has stated that there is "no evidence of toxicity or bioaccumulation potential for the soluble form of PVA used in detergent pods and sheets."

In a story about PVA by KING 5 TV in Seattle, an EPA spokesperson said they consulted colleagues at the EPA and said answering whether PVA should qualify as a plastic is "a difficult question to answer because 'plastic' can refer to a wide range of substances and does not have a singular, EPA-wide definition."

The spokesperson further explained the organization's position on PVA in a statement: "The term 'plastic' can refer to synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that use polymers as a main ingredient, which is true of [PVA]. On the other hand, plastic has been described as long-lasting and insoluble in water, which is not true of all PVA. It is also important to note that the term 'PVA' describes a range of chemicals with varying toxicity, biodegradability, and other features. ... These PVA structures are highly water-soluble, have low potential to bioaccumulate, do not meet typical definitions of microplastics and do not degrade into microplastics."

The American Cleaning Institute explains on its website how PVA, also known as PVOH, is made: "PVOH is typically made from fossil fuels/petroleum. The building blocks of the PVOH used in detergent film are oxygen (natural component of air), the gas ethylene (which is typically derived from petroleum or natural gas), and acetic acid (which is also typically made from petroleum or natural gas). ... Although PVOH films currently used in detergents are typically made from fossil fuels/petroleum, this will change as bio-based feedstocks become more available and cost-competitive."

Some brands, such as Sheets Laundry Club, have already gone on record saying their PVA is plant-based.

The American Cleaning Institute also says on its website that "although PVA films have similar properties to many plastics such as flexibility, they fully dissolve in water when used and the dissolved polymers are fully biodegraded by microorganisms in water treatment facilities and the environment."

Consumer Reports did a deep dive into PVA in May and came away concluding that the "contradicting findings" make it difficult to feel certain how much cause for concern there is around the chemical, but its reporting found that the levels of PVA suddenly flooding wastewater channels warrant further study as the use of PVA has "skyrocketed."

While the goals of PVA use in detergents are admirable, allowing many dishwasher and laundry detergent-makers to package their products in cardboard instead of thick plastic jugs while also reducing their weight, which lowers shipping fuel costs, the concern around sending different petroleum-based chemicals down the drain instead is understandable. And the potential impact is significant. An estimated 20 billion PVA-encased pods are used in the United States each year, with PVA winding up in oceans, rivers, soil, drinking water, and even human breast milk, according to a 2022 study on microplastics in the journal Polymers, which detected PVA in its findings.

There's a way for consumers to take action to make sure the product is regulated or studied further, Wood says, spotlighting the Pods Are Plastic Bill, introduced by New York City Council member James Gennaro. This legislation would ban the sale of laundry and dishwasher pods and sheets containing PVA in New York City, which could influence how products are made across the country.

Blueland is promoting that bill as well, as one of the only brands that makes single-use dishwasher and laundry detergent tablets and thus a competitor with many of the brands using PVA.

"This bill would set an important signal to businesses and individuals that plastic products should not be designed to go down our drains, into our water, and into our environment," notes Wood. She encourages viewers to show support by writing their representative.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to more comprehensively reflect context from the EPA and the American Cleaning Institute around PVA's composition and the organizations' views on its safety.

Join our free newsletter for cool news and actionable info that makes it easy to help yourself while helping the planet.

Cool Divider