What Is PVA (or Polyvinyl alcohol) And How Environmentally Friendly Is It?
If you’ve been trying to cull plastic jug consumption from laundry day, you may have run into a new-to-you material: PVA.
So what is PVA and, more specifically, what is PVA in laundry detergent?
It’s a dissolvable type of plastic increasingly found in dish soap, laundry detergent pods, and plenty of other consumer products.
Like many innovations in the sustainability world, PVA (AKA PVOH, or polyvinyl alcohol) has a bright side—and a dark one.
We’ve already put PVA through the spin cycle in our eco friendly laundry detergent exposé. Now let’s dive deep into the question, “Is PVA environmentally friendly?”.
While zero waste asks more questions than we can answer, this time we’re going to try to get to the bottom of at least one of them by learning what PVA exactly is and how it is (or isn’t) a sustainable alternative to other plastic packaging. If you want the highlights, watch our video above!
The Full List For what is polyvinyl alcohol & Its Impacts
1. The Meaning of PVA
First things first, what the heck is PVA?
Polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH, PVA, or PVAL) is an odorless, colorless synthetic polymer. In other words it’s a chemical compound made up of many molecules linked together.
History of PVA
PVA was discovered in the early 1920s by a Nobel Laureate.
Several decades later, a Japanese chemical manufacturer was the first to commercialize PVA when they used it to package unit-dose pesticides.
PVA came in handy because it protected farmers from chemical exposure, but the water-soluble pouches meant that fertilizer could still reach the hungry plants.
Since then, the same properties of water-solubility have made many single-use, zero waste* products possible (*almost zero waste as we discuss shortly).
How is PVA made?
Like other types of plastic, PVA begins as ethylene.
This is also the main building block for polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high- and low-density polyethylene and polystyrene—or plastics #1, #2, #4, and #6.
The ethylene is polymerized (i.e. combined) to become polyvinyl acetate (the PVA that’s found in glue), which is then dissolved in ethanol or methanol along with heat and a catalyst.
Voila! You’re left with polyvinyl alcohol that can be separated from the solution.
Clear as your high school chemistry syllabus?
2. What is PVA material used for?
In addition to offering an aroma barrier, PVA is strong, flexible, and resistant to grease, solvents, and oil.
Thanks to all that and the fact that PVA is water soluble and biodegradable, it’s been used in a variety of personal care, medical, household, and industrial applications.
Some of these include:
- Textile yarns (to strengthen them)
- Sustainable food packaging (i.e. grease-resistant paper wraps)
- Dish soap pods
- Laundry detergent sheets and pods
- Pre-measured packets of protein powder
- Pre-measured quantities of pasta, rice, seasoning, and other foods
- Contact lens lubricants
- “Artificial tears” used to treat dry eyes
- Swimming pool and spa chemicals
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Body wash and soap
- Personal care product concentrates sold as refills
- Hospital soiled linen laundry bags
Usually considered (or at least marketed as) sustainable, polyvinyl alcohol is unique in that it offers one of the best oxygen barriers known to science.
This means that PVA is perfect for preventing food spoilage. Hence why the edible film is used for pre-portioned instant coffee, flavored drink powder, instant tea, hot chocolate, and other ready-to-serve food and drink products.
It can even be used as a moisture-barrier coating ingredient in food itself, like nuts in yogurt, chocolate bars with multiple layers, or dried fruits in cereal.
Is PVA toxic?
Generally speaking, PVA isn’t considered to be toxic.
Environmental Working Group (EWG) gives it a score of 1 (low hazard).
While allergies are possible, few cases of toxicity have been reported.
Is PVA safe?
Generally recognized as a safe ingredient by the FDA, polyvinyl alcohol might be in your stomach contents now.
PVA isn’t absorbed well by the gastrointestinal tract, so it doesn’t accumulate in the body (even when eaten).
Researchers have found that US infants, children, and female and male adults consume between 0.101 and 0.549 grams of PVA daily.
So, if PVA is generally considered safe enough to eat then surely it’s safe for our planet, right?
3. is polyvinyl alcohol biodegradable?
They’re often touted as a sustainable zero waste cleaning alternative, but PVA pods probably aren’t as green as we think.
The first thing to consider is that PVA is derived from petrochemicals.
Is PVA plastic? Or microplastic?
Being a flexible, petrochemical-derived polymer means PVA is technically plastic.
But is it microplastic? Or, more accurately, does PVA release microplastics?
PVA is generally deemed “biodegradable,” but “dissolvable” is actually a better way to describe it.
When PVA is combined with water and microbes, PVA goes from a polymer to a monomer (single molecules that can eventually biodegrade)—but it may take years, decades, or even centuries to do so.
So while it might not be a microplastic per se, PVA still becomes something that may put marine life at harm, just like microplastics do.
In a study by Newcastle University, it was discovered that many man-made fibers are being ingested by inhabitants of deep ocean trenches.
These plastic, synthetic and semi-synthetic materials include: ramie, lyocell, rayon, polyvinyl chloride, polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), polyamide, polyethylene, and nylon.
While the jury’s still out on the potential negative impact PVA is having on marine life, we now know that it’s being found in the stomachs of amphipods from the deepest parts of Earth’s oceans.
The study’s authors conclude by saying, “[I]t is highly likely there are no marine ecosystems left that are not impacted by plastic pollution.”
PVA is responsible for some of this pollution.
Wait, so is PVA biodegradable?
This is where things get more confusing.
In recent years, research has been published claiming:
1) PVOH “is biodegradable in the environmental conditions where it is discharged”
2) “PVA has low degradation rates within WWTPs (wastewater treatment plants); thus, its hydrophilicity and massive production numbers make it a cause for concern as a pollutant in the natural environment.”
The latter study was partially funded by Blueland, a plastic-free cleaning company offering eco friendly sponges, soaps, and the like. Their laundry and dishwasher tablets are free of PVA.
That’s because PVA requires very strict conditions and microbes to fully biodegrade.
Many companies end up partnering with outside firms to establish biological environments that are suitable for degradation. In doing so, they’re able to get the data proving that their products are biodegradable.
In reality, however, most wastewater treatment plants aren’t designed to properly degrade PVA. They’re designed to break down biological matter and human waste, not this “new” plastic the world is currently obsessed with.
Truly sustainable polyvinyl alcohol would need to be able to break down entirely even by the most rudimentary of sewage systems, and the current reality is far from that ideal.
PVA environmental impact
As Forbes reported in 2021, a whopping 75% of detergent pods go untreated, potentially entering groundwater, ecosystems, and the human food supply chain.
More than 8,000 tons of PVA residue is thought to enter the environment every year—in the US alone.
Organizations like Plastic Oceans International have sounded the alarm, claiming that PVA-loving brands who use “zero waste” and “plastic-free” marketing claims are spreading misinformation.
Other studies (that aren’t funded by corporations) reflect some of these concerns, highlighting that wastewater that contains PVA can disturb aquatic life, alter soil conditions, and, ultimately, affect human health.
Once PVA residue ends up in the environment, it can also absorb heavy metals and pesticides, which may bring even more harm to aquatic species and interfere with crop yields.
PVA is a sustainable step in the right direction, but it’s important for brands to present a clean image of the whole picture (including PVA’s not-so-clean aspects).
4. PVA Alternatives
Are things like PVA encased dishwasher and laundry tablets better than their plastic bottle-contained counterparts?
Are they totally sustainable and zero waste?
Much like sustainable acetate material, polyvinyl acetate provides a better alternative to the excessive household and personal care product packaging, but we hope it’s just a stepping stone towards better materials.
PVA derived from bio-based sources is still in its very early stages. But we could eventually see the polymer made with plant starches, polysaccharides, or cellulose—instead of fossil fuels.
Until then, we recommend considering what’s in the pods that qualifies them as eco friendly. If you’re okay with PVA, consider these brands:
- Dropps laundry and eco friendly dishwasher tablets
- EcoRoots laundry detergent sheets
- Kind Laundry laundry detergent sheets
- Tru Earth laundry detergent sheets
An even better route would be to avoid harsh ingredients, single-use packaging, and PVA entirely with full zero waste laundry detergents, dish soaps, and the like:
- A Drop In the Ocean has locally-made dishwasher pods that are free of PVA.
- In addition to plastic-free laundry detergent powder, etee also offers refillable liquid products (like zero waste hand soap) via PVA-free compostable beeswax pods.
- No Tox Life has a totally plastic-free (PVA-free) zero waste dish soap.
Final Thoughts On The Environmental impact of PVA
TL;DR: is polyvinyl alcohol eco friendly?
PVA may be a step in the right direction, but it’s not exactly what we’d consider sustainable.
Some brands have jumped the gun on its “zero waste” nature before they had the data to back up their sustainability claims. But PVA isn’t as innocuous as many companies would have us believe.
Which is why we need to keep talking about this and continue to press for progress in alternative packaging.
When someone brings up the era in which teens were eating Tide pods, let them know what effect the material is having on aquatic life. Or impress a first date with stats on PVA dissolvability.
If you don’t want to show your nerdy side, share this article instead.