Does the film around detergent pods really biodegrade?  A debate rages.

Does the film around detergent pods really biodegrade? A debate rages.


Easy-to-use detergent pods have become ubiquitous in American homes, containing just the right combination and the right amount of cleaning agents to leave clothes fresh and dishes sparkling. But now a debate rages over whether they can contribute to the growing problem of plastic pollution that threatens human health and the environment.

An eco-friendly company that sells cleaning products and advocacy groups on Tuesday called on the Environmental Protection Agency to take action against the use of the “plastic wrap” that wraps around coffee pods, arguing that this material does not completely decompose in water as advertised. The petition urges the agency require health and environmental safety testing for polyvinyl alcohol, also known as PVA or PVOH, which wraps the pods. The petition asks the EPA to remove the compound from its Safer Choice and Safer Chemical Ingredients lists until testing is done and the PVA is proven safe.

Blueland, a company that sells a laundry detergent tablet “in dry form,” has spearheaded efforts to subject the pods to greater federal scrutiny. His actions have angered major players in the cleaning products industry, including an influential trade association and the maker of the film used in detergent pods.

“Polyvinyl alcohol is a polymer, so by definition it’s a plastic — it’s a synthetic, petroleum-based plastic,” the Blueland co-founder said. Sarah Paji Yoo.

Yoo added that she and others at the New York-based company view popular pods and new laundry detergent sheets that use PVA as “arguably worse than straws.”

“At least with a straw you can look at it and know, ‘Okay, this is trash. I should put this in the trash,'” she said. plastics designed to go down our sewers and into our water systems which ultimately empty into the natural environment,” she said.

Asked for comment, an EPA spokesperson said the agency “will review the petition and respond accordingly.”

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PVA, which is also used in the textile industry, has been widely considered 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 pharmaceuticals. The Environmental Working Group has also classified PVA as a low-risk ingredient in personal care products.

Additionally, single-dose detergent pods that use PVA are often considered a greener 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% of PVA films biodegrade in 28 days and 100% of films in 90 days. The group says water containing the dissolved film will go to sewage treatment plants, where bacteria and other microorganisms break down the material “through natural biodegradation”.

But Blueland commissioned and helped fund a peer-reviewed study last year that challenges that claim. His petition, which is backed by several organizations dedicated to fighting plastic pollution, cites the study’s estimate that around 75% of the PVA from laundry and dishwasher pods remained intact after going through processing. conventional wastewater.

“There is now an urgent need for the scientific community to focus its attention on these new emerging pollutants,” said Stefano Magni, assistant professor of ecology in the Department of Biosciences at the University of Milan, who has studied the possible toxicity of the compound but does not was not involved. in the study commissioned by Blueland. “Indeed, an enormous quantity of PVA is produced annually, placed on the market and then used and released into the environment”, in particular into aquatic ecosystems.

Charles Rolsky, co-author of the Blueland-funded study and principal investigator at the Shaw Institute in Maine, said previous research suggesting that PVA could leave no traces over time often involved conditions not found usually not in the real world. These findings could lead consumers to believe that a pod product using PVA film may “appear more eco-friendly and biodegradable than it actually is,” he added.

Yoo said that “at this point, there are probably millions of consumers buying these sheets or pods thinking they are doing a really good thing for the planet. They’re converting to these products because of the sustainability messages, because of the plastic-free messages, but unknowingly they’re actually sending plastic particles down their drains.

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Fully biodegradable PVA requires the presence of the right species and concentration of microorganisms, which must also be formed to break down the compound, Rolsky said. And there isn’t “a single wastewater treatment plant in the United States where the water stays with these microbes for nearly 28 days,” he said. “At most it could be a week, but more realistically it’s days or hours.”

While more research is needed on the potential effects of PVA on humans and the planet, the problem 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 the ability of PVA to dissolve to pouring salt into water. “The salt will disappear, but you can still taste the salt itself, even if 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 to make move these harmful substances up the food chain. But evidence for the potential effects of PVA “is sparse,” said Magni, co-author of a study that found no toxic effects associated with the compound in fish embryos and a species of water flea. . He added that environmental testing of PVA is “urgently needed”.

MonoSol, the Indiana-based company that makes the wrapper, and the American Cleaning Institute have rejected calls for federal authorities to regulate the film’s use 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 business goals.” .

“Decades of studies, including evaluations by the EPA, FDA, regulatory and certification bodies around the world, have proven the safety and durability of PVA,” Vander Laan said.

Meanwhile, the ACI issued a lengthy statement highlighting the benefits of PVA film and supporting the research findings. The trade association also reiterated its criticism of the research commissioned by Blueland, noting that the study “presents a flawed model based on theoretical assumptions and uses faulty data in that model.”

“Because this chemistry has enabled these innovative laundry and automatic dishwasher product formats, it is extremely disappointing to learn of the misinformation that is spreading about PVA/PVOH,” the ACI statement read.

But Rolsky said he and other experts called for more research. “The ACP should not be reviled.”

“We cannot speculate,” he added. “We have the tools to do the analysis. We should do the analysis and learn how it actually behaves.

Magni accepted. Research on this and other water-soluble polymers is “in year zero,” he said. “There is still everything to do.”

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