What Is PVA? Aka Polyvinyl Alcohol

Have you read the ingredient list on your laundry pods or dishwasher packs? There is an ingredient called PVA and it’s known as polyvinyl alcohol, and it is a lot more common than you think. If you have never heard of PVA or want to know more about it then you have come to the right place. Today we are going to answer your burning question; What is PVA?

What is PVA in laundry detergent? Well, it is the thin single-use plastic that your pods are wrapped in as it acts as a binding agent that dissolves when mixed with water. 

So, what really is PVA, and is it plastic?

PVA is a synthetic plastic polymer that can be found in common household items like dishwashers and laundry pods and also can be found in common cleaning products, it’s that thin little single-use plastic wrapping that holds all the liquids that will be released in the wash, and it comes in a liquid or powdered form to be added into products. 

Woman hands comparing washing laundry nuts and chemicals detergent blue pods. Alternative household duties objects. Pin

There is a fine line if this truly is plastic or not because typically plastic does not dissolve in water and PVA does. Although this is a synthetic plastic, it is not a microplastic as it does not meet the requirements to define it as one, to be considered a microplastic it must be micro in size, not water soluble, and it can’t be biodegradable in the environmental condition where it is discharged. As for if PVA is safe, it is considered non-toxic deeming it safe for use and is recognized by the FDA as safe. 

But does PVA biodegrade? It has the potential to but for the most part, it does not. For PVA to biodegrade it needs a very specific microorganism and a specific amount of time in a wastewater treatment facility. However, most facilities in the U.S. don’t have the necessary conditioners to help the PVA biodegrade. This doesn’t really make it biodegradable, does it?

How is PVA made?

Welcome to Polyvinyl Alcohol 101! Let’s take you back to your high school science class and relive some chemistry… PVA is made by dissolving another polymer (PVAc) in methanol and then it is treated with an alkaline catalyst like sodium hydroxide. After that concoction of chemicals is mixed the reaction removes the acetate groups from the PVAc molecules without disturbing the chain structure. When all the steps are done you end up with a highly soluble water product known as PVA.

What is PVA used for?

Oh boy, do we have a list for you. PVA is used in a variety of things, and honestly, it might shock you as to what you will find it in because PVA is water soluble which makes it easy to use in items like personal care, household items, and even medical products. PVA is a binder and that is why it's added to so many common things that you wouldn’t think it would be in. Buckle up because here is what you will find PVA in:

That’s just scratching the surface of what you can find PVA in, but it’s still interesting to see all the things it adds to. One of the reasons that PVA can be found in so many things is because it can prevent spoilage of items, this is why you can also find it in instant tea, drink powders, and really any ready-to-serve products. It's why we recommend organic tea brands.

What are the environmental impacts of PVA?

Remember when companies were really selling the idea that laundry pods and dishwashing pods were better for the environment because they weren’t individually wrapped? Turns out this is not conducive to sustainable living. There are a lot of companies out there promoting products that have PVA as “green” but that isn’t necessarily the case, this is a form of greenwashing.

Once the pods dissolve in the wash over 75% of PVA persists in our waterways and soil, when it ends up in the soil it can easily get into our food, especially through our produce which is how this ends up in our stomachs. As for what happens to our waterways, most of the PVA found in our water goes untreated and accounts for 8,000 tons of PVA per year entering the environment via water.

Is PVA environmentally friendly?

The answer is no. With all the ways PVA can still be found especially in our waterways, it is hard to say that this product is good for the environment. Although it is deemed non-toxic it is responsible for the breakdown of marine life found in the deepest parts of our oceans, and the fact that it is considered a plastic would make it not eco-friendly.

Did you know: PVA has been found in infants, children, and adults and that researchers determined that we consume between 0.101 and 0.549 grams of PVA daily

Can PVA be considered zero waste?

To be unbiased, this is a really hard thing to define, yes there are studies out there that say PVA is not entirely zero waste because it cannot biodegrade and it can be found in our soil, food, and now our stomachs. On the other hand, there is a lot of information out there saying that it breaks down in water and can be used in various forms like powder or liquid to make up items like yarn, which would render it zero waste. To really answer this question the consumer has to decide what is considered zero waste to them.

PVA-free products we recommend

1. Etee concentrated laundry detergent

Concentrated Laundry Detergent package from etee.Pin

This laundry detergent will give you up to 180 loads of laundry (60 tablespoons), not only will you get clean, bright clothing from using this detergent it is completely plastic free and its packaging is made from TEKPAK technology which is omnidegradable®. That means that it will degrade anywhere there are active microbes.

2. Elva’s LOVELY Unscented Laundry Wash

A bottle of Elva's zero waste laundry detergent sitting on a bench.Pin

This great-smelling laundry wash is good for 50 loads (500 ml) or 150 loads (1.5 L) and it comes in a refillable amber bottle. This is a 100% biodegradable product that can be used in HE machines, it has certified organic ingredients that include herbs and plant extracts. Due to its all-natural products, this product is perfect for sensitive skin.

3. Eco Roots zero waste dish soap

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Image: Eco Roots

An efficient and clean product that will surely get any grease and grime out of your dishes! This comes in a block that is completely plastic free, all you need to do is scrape any excess food or grease off, wet your cloth, and rub it on the dish block. You can also use this to clean your sink when it's dirty.

A final thought on PVA

Holy, that was a lot of information… breaking down what PVA is and why it’s such a problem is complex, and doing a google search doesn’t really bring you many concrete answers since there are just as many companies confirming how amazing it is, as there are companies who are telling you to avoid it.

PVA can best be described as a binding agent that is non-toxic, does not biodegrade, and affects our soil, waterways, and marine life. The option to avoid it and use products that do not contain PVA is likely the better option, using products like natural laundry detergent, zero laundry detergent, and other natural products can really help to reduce the impact of PVA.

We hope you learned as much as we did researching this article and gathering as much information as we could, knowledge is power! If this article taught you something new and you think a friend or family member might enjoy this read, feel free to give this a share and pass on that knowledge!

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