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Confused shopper seeks advice before purchasing laundry product: 'The jury is out'

"I was never happy with the number I had to use to get my clothes clean."

"I was never happy with the number I had to use to get my clothes clean."

Photo Credit: iStock

Trying to find the most environmentally friendly cleaning products to use in your home can be easier said than done.

That's especially true when it comes to laundry. Fabric softeners often contain animal fats or petroleum-based ingredients — and they can clog up machines and cause them to break, with oil-based elements potentially causing chemicals to accumulate in waterways.  

Meanwhile, laundry pods are made with an ingredient called polyvinyl alcohol that some consider to be a form of plastic since it is made from petroleum, as the Washington Post has reported. Those critics say it effectively sheds a type of microplastics, which are becoming increasingly ubiquitous and have been linked to a number of environmental and health issues, into the wash cycle and sewage systems.

To navigate this pollutant minefield, one person asked the r/ZeroWaste Reddit community whether one seemingly useful laundry product was worth trying.

"Are laundry sheets better than powder or capsules?" they asked. "The packaging says the sheet will melt away completely in the wash, so in theory there's no waste (apart from the overall package) and no microplastics as there might be with capsules."

To clarify, the original poster was referring to detergent sheets rather than dryer sheets, with the former an increasingly popular alternative to laundry pods. Instead of having liquid contained in a plastic bubble, a detergent sheet is a concentrated square or rectangle that fully dissolves in the washing machine. 

However, some commenters noted that most or all sheets still contain that same polyvinyl alcohol (often abbreviated as PVA or PVOH) to keep the product together, as it is a polymer derived from fossil fuels. 

"I stopped using them because of microplastics and went back to powder in cardboard boxes, but while I was trying them, I was never happy with the number I had to use to get my clothes clean," one Redditor said. "The cost was a lot higher per load than powder. So for me it was easy to quit trying."

"The sheets contain plastics (PVA) but the jury is out on how much remains in the water ways," another user added. "In theory, PVA breaks down into organics elements that shouldn't cause issues but how long it takes and whether it's realistic for our daily use is debatable."

Another commenter was happy with these products. 

"I use them and have been very happy with the ones we have," they noted. "My daughter's BF is a mechanic and he has had no issue with his clothes not getting clean."

The claims that PVA is a plastic stem from a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The study found the chemical in wastewater and said that "research into truly eco-friendly substitutes for PVA is warranted and should be further explored." Blueland, which does not use PVA in its products such as laundry and hand soap tablets, was credited as sponsoring the study.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does include PVA on its Safer Chemical Ingredients List, stating in a 2023 notice that there is "no evidence of toxicity or bioaccumulation potential for the soluble form of PVA used in detergent pods and sheets." An EPA spokesperson has also called whether PVA is a plastic "a difficult question to answer," though, as Seattle's King 5 News reported, leaving it even more difficult for consumers to draw conclusions. 

Finding anything that isn't packaged in or containing some kind of plastic or both is a serious challenge. People have become increasingly frustrated by egregious plastic packaging on even fruits and vegetables at the supermarket.

But natural cleaning solutions can be found, and some might require items you already have in your house. For example, instead of fabric softener, some folks swear by using white vinegar to keep clothes clean and fresh. Elsewhere, a green living advocate has also lauded the benefits of making detergent from horse chestnuts — which can often be made for free. 

For store-bought products, many experts say powdered detergent or tablets in a cardboard box have fewer potential drawbacks for a more environmentally friendly laundry day. Other options for those concerned include concentrated liquid detergent that comes in aluminum bottles, such as from Dirty Labs and Grove Collaborative, as that solution also avoids any plastic packaging or ingredients that may be derived from petroleum. 

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