This is an update to an article originally published in July 2022.
AMY K IN CALIFORNIA ASKS: I like to use those dishwasher pods in the disposable clear packs, but I want to make sure they break down in the environment. Do they?
MOM DETECTIVE ANSWERS: Thank you for this important question.
Laundry and dishwasher pods are made of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). PVA and other similar blends, such as PVOH and PVAI, are used increasingly in consumer products to package laundry pods, power the laundry “sheet” or “tab,” and enrobe dishwasher gels or solutions. They’re all plastic—synthetic plastic polymers that seem to disappear in the wash process. They’re marketed as dissolvable in water, leaving consumers with the perfect amount of detergent only. In that regard, pods do save you from overusing product in your laundry or dishwasher. And PVA is touted by the industry for being the only vinyl polymer known to get broken down by microorganisms—if certain conditions with the right bacteria exist.
The good news about these plastics is that they reduce the amount of water needed in products and can lower the travel footprint of products.
The downside is exactly what you’re asking about: most PVA does not break down and disappear. Instead, these manufactured materials change into smaller microbits of plastic that you can’t see. They are so small that they wash down the drain. Then the particles wind up in our environment, contributing to plastic pollution. It’s been calculated that detergent pods contribute to 8,000 tons of PVA that goes into the environment annually. To give some context, that equates to 600 million plastic soda bottles worth of plastic, yearly. And only 75% of the PVA material gets broken down.
One way to think about how PVA works is to imagine dissolving sugar in water. The sugar crystals will disappear, but when you drink the water, you know that there is sugar present from the taste. Similarly, even when PVA “disappears” in wash water, it’s still present. And, critically, it still contributes to plastic pollution.
There are numerous ways PVA can pollute the environment. Once PVA plastic particles enter the sewage system, some escape and can wind up in the air or soil, while others will become sewage sludge or end up in our wastewater treatment systems.
Beyond pollution, we don’t yet know the true cost of having these chemicals widely circulating in our air, water, soil, and eventually, our bodies. We know microplastics can harm the health of the animal and plant worlds. For example, coral ingestion of and even interaction with nanoplastics is associated with bleaching and other signs of disease and ultimately death. We also know birds and other marine life that ingest plastic can have adverse health issues and even death.
Given all of this, it’s a good idea to avoid PVA. Here’s how:
- Steer clear of “dissolvable” packs and packaging and don’t fall for “degradable” plastic claims. Almost all plastic requires special conditions that individual residences and even recycling facilities don’t have.
- To use the least amount of detergent per load of dishes or laundry, look for products that are concentrated. These use less space per volume.
- Find products that can be mixed with water at home to cut down on the financial and environmental cost of shipping.
- Look for powder detergents; these can be packaged without plastic. There are also powder tablets that don’t come encased in plastic.
- Write your legislators and ask for real and effective plastic pollution legislation, like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.
- As plastics continue to dominate all aspects of our daily lives, we can choose to stop using them. We can also demand cleaner products and packaging that truly break down in the environment, not pollute it.