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, known as polyvinyl alcohol, which is much more common than you think. If you have never heard of PVA or want to know more about it, 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 your pods are wrapped in, as it acts as a binding agent that dissolves when mixed with water.

So, what 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 is plastic 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 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 make it biodegradable.

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, PVA.

What is PVA used for?

Oh boy, do we have a list for you? PVA is used in a variety of things. Honestly, it might shock you about what you will find it in because PVA is water soluble, making it easy to use in personal care, household items, and even medical products. PVA is a binder, so it's added to many common things 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 seeing everything it adds is still interesting. 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 ready-to-serve products. It's why we recommend organic tea brands.

What are the environmental impacts of PVA?

Remember when companies were 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 ends up in our stomachs. As for what happens to our waterways, most of the PVA found in our water goes untreated, accounting 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 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, a lot of information is 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, rendering it zero waste. To 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

A bar of soap. Pin
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 bring you many concrete answers since just as many companies are confirming how amazing it is, as there are companies who are telling you to avoid it.

PVA is a binding agent that is non-toxic, does not biodegrade, and affects our soil, waterways, and marine life. Avoiding it and using products that do not contain PVA is likely the better option. Using natural laundry detergent, zero laundry detergent, and other natural products can help reduce the impact of PVA.

We hope you learned as much as we did research this article and gathered 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 share and pass on that knowledge!


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