Are detergent pods really biodegradable?

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

An eco-friendly company that sells cleaning supplies and advocacy groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday to take action against the use of the “plastic film” surrounding the pods, arguing that the material doesn’t decompose. completely in the water as advertised. The petition urges the agency request health and environmental safety testing for the polyvinyl alcohol, also known as PVA or PVOH, that encases the pods. The petition calls on the EPA to remove the compound from the Safer Choice and Safer Chemical Ingredients lists until testing is conducted and PVA is proven safe.

Blueland, a company that sells a “dry dry” laundry detergent tablet, has led the effort to bring the pods under greater federal scrutiny. His actions angered major players in the cleaning products industry, including an influential trade association and the maker of the film used in detergent capsules.

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

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

“At least with a straw you can look at it and know, ‘Okay, this is garbage. I should put it in the trash can,’” she said. “These pods and sheets are plastics designed to go down our drains and water systems which eventually 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, also used in the textile industry, has been widely considered to be safe. In addition to being included in the EPA’s list of safer chemical ingredients, 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 evaluated PVA as a low-risk ingredient in personal care products.

Additionally, single-serving cleaning pods using PVA are often considered a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional liquid products that come in plastic containers.

Research publicized 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 film within 90 days. The group says the water containing the dissolved film will go to wastewater treatment plants, where bacteria and other microorganisms break down the material “through natural biodegradation.”

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

“It is now urgent that the scientific community focus its attention on these new emerging pollutants,” said Stefano Magni, an ecology researcher at the University of Milan who has studied the compound’s possible toxicity but was not involved in the Blueland-commissioned study. . “Indeed, a huge amount of PVA is produced every year, placed on the market and then used and released into the environment”, particularly in aquatic ecosystems.

Charles Rolsky, co-author of the Blueland-funded study and senior research scientist at the Shaw Institute in Maine, said previous research suggested that PVA may leave no trace over time, often involving conditions not typically found in the real world. These findings may lead consumers to believe that a pod product using a PVA film may “appear to be 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 capsules thinking they are actually doing a great thing for the planet. They’re converting to these products because of the sustainability messaging, because of the plastic-free messaging, but unbeknownst to them, they’re actually sending plastic particles down the drain.

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Fully biodegradable PVA requires the presence of the right species and concentration of microorganisms, which also need to be trained to break down the compound, Rolsky said. And there isn’t “a single wastewater treatment plant in the United States where the water is found with those microbes for anything close to 28 days,” she 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 concern is that the film is “very similar to the conventional plastic we see regularly,” Rolsky said. But there’s one big difference, she said: PVA “is simply soluble in water.”

He compared PVA’s ability to dissolve to pouring salt into water. “The salt will disappear, but you can still taste the salt very much, 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 move those harmful substances along the chain. food. But evidence for PVA’s potential effects “is scant,” said Magni, co-author of a study that found no toxic effects associated with the compound in fish embryos and one species of water flea. He added that environmental testing of PVA is “urgently needed”.

Both MonoSol, the Indiana-based company that makes the wrap, and the American Cleaning Institute have rejected calls for federal officials 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 EPA’s credibility to further its own business goals.”

“Decades of studies, including assessments from the EPA, FDA, regulatory and certification bodies around the world, have demonstrated the safety and sustainability of PVA,” said Vander Laan.

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

“Because this chemistry has enabled these innovative product formats for laundry and automated dishwashing, it is extremely disappointing to learn of the misinformation about PVA/PVOH that is spreading,” the ICA statement said.

But Rolsky said he and other experts are calling for more research. “The PVA should not 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 on this and other water-soluble polymers is “in year zero,” he said. “There is still everything to do.”

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