An environmentally friendly company that sells cleaning products and advocacy kits on Tuesday asked the Environmental Protection Agency to take action against the use of “plastic film” that surrounds the pods, arguing that the materials don’t completely dissolve in water as advertised. The petition urges the agency To demand health and environmental safety tests for polyvinyl alcohol, also known as PVA or PVOH, which encapsulates capsules. Until testing is done and PVA’s safety is proven, the petition calls for the EPA to remove the compound from its Safer Choice and Safer Chemical Ingredients lists.
Blueland, a company that sells a “dry form” laundry detergent tablet, has led the effort to bring the capsules under additional federal scrutiny. Her actions angered major players in the cleaning products industry, including an influential trade association and the manufacturer of the film used in detergent capsules.
“Polyvinyl alcohol is a polymer, so by definition it’s a plastic – it’s a synthetic, petroleum-based plastic,” says Blueland co-founder Sarah Peggy U.
Yu added that she and others at the New York City-based company view the popular capsules and newer PVA-based laundry detergent bars as “worse than straws.”
“At least with a straw you can look at it and be like, ‘Well, that’s garbage.'” I should put this in the trash. “These capsules and slabs are plastics that are designed to flow down our drains and into our water systems and that eventually empty into the natural environment,” she said.
In response to a request 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, is widely considered safe. In addition to being listed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of safest chemical ingredients, the compound has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the packaging of food, nutritional supplements, and pharmaceutical products. The Environmental Working Group has also classified PVA as a low-risk ingredient in personal care products.
Furthermore, single-dose detergent capsules using PVA are often considered a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional liquid products that come in plastic containers.
Research promoted by the American Cleaning Institute, or ACI, a trade group, indicates that at least 60 percent of PVA biofilm degrades within 28 days and 100 percent of the film within 90 days. The group says the water containing the dissolved film will go to wastewater treatment plants, where bacteria and other microorganisms will break down the material “through natural biodegradation.”
But Blueland commissioned and helped fund a peer-reviewed study last year that challenges that claim. Her petition, backed by several organizations dedicated to combating plastic pollution, cites the study’s estimate that about 75 percent of the PVA from laundry and dishwashers remained intact after going through conventional wastewater treatment.
Charles Rolsky, co-author of the study and a senior research scientist at the Shaw Institute in Maine, said so previously Research indicates that PVA can leave no trace over time Conditions that do not normally exist in the real world. He added that these findings may lead consumers to believe that a pod product using PVA film “may appear more environmentally friendly and biodegradable than it actually is.”
“At this point, there are probably millions of consumers who are buying these sheets or capsules thinking they’re doing something really nice for the planet,” Yu said. “They’re turning to these products because of the sustainability messages, because of the plastic-free messages, but unbeknownst to them, they’re actually sending microplastics down their drains.”
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Complete biodegradation of PVA requires the right species and concentration of microorganisms, which must also be trained to break down the compound, Rolsky said. He said there is “not a single wastewater treatment plant in the United States where the water stays with these microbes for close to 28 days.” “At most, it might be a week, but more realistically, days to hours.”
While more research is needed on PVA’s potential effects on people and the planet, the concern is that the film is “very similar to the conventional plastics that we see on a regular basis,” Rolsky said. But there’s one key difference, he said: PVA “just happens to be water-soluble.”
Compare the solubility of PVA to pouring salt into water. “The salt will go away, but you can still taste the salt itself, even if you can’t see it.”
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Both MonoSol, the Indiana-based company that makes the packaging, and the American Cleaning Institute declined a call from federal officials to regulate the use of 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 “abusing the EPA’s credibility in pursuit of its business goals.”
“Decades of study, including evaluations by the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, and regulatory and certification agencies around the world, have demonstrated the safety and sustainability of PVA,” said Vander Laan.
Meanwhile, ACI issued a lengthy statement highlighting the benefits of PVA film and supporting the research findings. The trade association also reiterated its criticism of Ploeland’s research, stating that the study “presents a flawed model that relies on theoretical assumptions and uses flawed data in that model.”
“As this chemistry has enabled innovative automatic laundry and dishwashing product formats, it is extremely disappointing to learn of the misinformation being spread about PVA/PVOH,” the ACI statement said.
But Rolsky said he and other experts call for more research. “PVA should not be vilified.”
“We can’t speculate,” he added. “We have the tools to do the analysis. We have to do the analysis and learn how it actually behaves.”