Easy-to-use detergent pods have become ubiquitous in American homes, containing just the right combination and amount of cleaning agents to leave clothes fresh and dishes sparkling. But now a debate is raging over whether they may contribute to the growing plastic pollution problem that threatens human health and the environment.
An eco-friendly company that sells cleaning products and advocacy groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday to take action against the use of the “plastic film” that surrounds the pods, arguing that the material does not completely break down in water as advertised. The petition urges the agency to require health and environmental safety tests for polyvinyl alcohol, also known as PVA or PVOH, which encases the pods. The petition calls on the EPA to remove the compound from its Safer Choice and Safer Chemical Ingredients lists until the tests are conducted and PVA is proved safe.
Blueland, a company which sells a “dry-form” laundry detergent tablet, has spearheaded the effort to subject pods to greater federal scrutiny. Its actions have angered major players within the cleaning-products industry, including a trade association and the manufacturer of the film used in detergent pods.
“Polyvinyl alcohol is a polymer, so by definition it is a plastic — it’s a synthetic petroleum-based plastic,” said Blueland co-founder Sarah Paiji Yoo.
Yoo added that she and others at the New York City-based company view the popular pods and newer laundry detergent sheets that use PVA as “arguably worse than straws.”
“At least with a straw you can look at it and know like, ‘Okay, this is trash. I should put this in the trash can,’ ” she said. “These pods and sheets are plastics that are designed to go down our drains and into our water systems that ultimately empty out into the natural environment,” she said.
Asked for comment, an EPA spokesperson said the agency “will review the petition and respond accordingly.”
PVA, which is also used in the textile industry, has been widely regarded as safe. In addition to being included on the EPA’s Safer Chemical Ingredients list, the compound is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in food packaging, dietary supplements and pharmaceutical products. The Environmental Working Group has also rated PVA as a low-hazard ingredient in personal care products.
What’s more, single-dose detergent pods that use PVA are often considered to be a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional liquid products that come in plastic containers.
Research touted by the American Cleaning Institute, or ACI, a trade group, suggests that at least 60 percent of PVA film biodegrades within 28 days and 100 percent of the film within 90 days. The group says water containing the dissolved film will go to wastewater treatment plants, where bacteria and other microorganisms break down the material “through natural biodegradation.”
Blueland commissioned and helped fund a peer-reviewed study last year that challenges that claim. Its petition, which is supported by several organizations dedicated to fighting plastic pollution, cites the study’s estimate that about 75 percent of PVA from laundry and dishwasher pods remained intact after passing through conventional wastewater treatment.
“It is now urgent for the scientific community to focus its attention on these new emerging pollutants,” said Stefano Magni, an assistant professor of ecology in the biosciences department at the University of Milan who has studied the compound’s possible toxicity but was not involved in the study commissioned by Blueland. “Indeed, a huge amount of PVA is annually produced, placed on the market and then used and released in the environment,” particularly in aquatic ecosystems.
Charles Rolsky, co-author of the Blueland-funded study and a senior research scientist at the Shaw Institute in Maine, said that earlier research suggesting PVA could leave no trace over time often involved conditions that typically aren’t found in the real world. Those results could lead consumers to believe that a pod product using PVA film may “seem more eco-friendly and biodegradable than it actually is,” he added.
Yoo said that “at this point, there are probably millions of consumers who are buying these sheets or pods thinking they’re doing a really great thing for the planet. They’re converting into these products because of the sustainability messaging, because of the plastic-free messaging, but unbeknownst to them, they’re actually sending plastic particles down their drains.”
Fully biodegrading PVA requires the presence of the right species and concentration of microorganisms, which also have to be trained to break the compound down, Rolsky said. And there isn’t “a single wastewater treatment plant in the United States where water sits with those microbes for anything close to 28 days,” he said. “At most, it might be a week, but more realistically it’s days to hours.”
While more research is needed on PVA’s potential effects on humans and the planet, the concern is that the film is “very similar to conventional plastics that we see on a regular basis,” Rolsky said. But there’s one major difference, he said: PVA “just happens to be water soluble.”
He compared PVA’s ability to dissolve to pouring salt into water. “The salt will disappear, but you can still very much taste the salt itself, even though you can’t see it.”
A growing body of research suggests that plastic pollution can have serious health and environmental effects, including those posed by the ability of small plastic particles to absorb chemicals, contaminants and heavy metals and move those harmful substances up the food chain. But evidence of the potential effects of PVA “are scarce,” said Magni, who co-authored a study that did not find toxic effects associated with the compound in fish embryos and a species of water flea. He added that environmental tests of PVA are “urgently needed.”
Both MonoSol, the Indiana-based company that manufactures the wrapping, and the ACI rejected the call for federal officials to regulate use of the film in consumer goods.
In a statement, Matthew Vander Laan, MonoSol’s vice president of corporate affairs, called the petition a “publicity stunt” and accused Blueland of “exploiting the credibility of the EPA in pursuit of its own commercial goals.”
“Decades of study, including evaluations by the EPA, FDA, regulatory and certification bodies around the world, have proven the safety and sustainability of PVA,” Vander Laan said.
Meanwhile, the ACI issued a lengthy statement that highlighted benefits of PVA film and supporting research findings. The trade association also reiterated its criticisms of the research commissioned by Blueland, noting that the study “presents a flawed model based on theoretical assumptions and uses flawed data in that model.”
“Because this chemistry has enabled these innovative laundry and automatic dishwashing product formats, it is extremely disappointing to learn about the misinformation that is being spread about PVA/PVOH,” the ACI statement said.
But Rolsky said that he and other experts are calling for more research: “PVA shouldn’t be vilified.”
“We can’t speculate,” he added. “We have the tools to do the analysis. We should do the analysis and learn how it actually behaves.”
Magni agreed. Research into this and other water-soluble polymers is “in the zero year,” he said. “There is still everything to do.”