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Toxicity tests sought for PVA plastic on detergent pods

US EPA also asked to remove polyvinyl alcohol from safer chemicals list

by Cheryl Hogue , Craig Bettenhausen
November 16, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 41

Plastic-encased detergent packs.
Credit: Shutterstock
A maker of pressed-powder cleaning tabs and an environmental group are asking the US Environmental Protection Agency to require toxicity testing of the dissolving plastic used on detergent pods.

A cleaning products company and environmental activists are asking the US Environmental Protection Agency to require health and safety tests on polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). This water-soluble plastic is widely used to encase pods containing concentrated laundry and dishwasher detergents.

They are also petitioning the EPA to remove PVA from the Safer Choice program’s list of chemicals that the agency considers safer for human health and the environment than ingredients with similar functional properties. The EPA should keep PVA off this list until after manufacturers complete health and safety testing under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the petition says.

The company filing the petition is Blueland, a cleaning products manufacturer that makes pressed-powder pods for home and personal-care products. Blueland’s products directly compete with PVA-based products. Joining Blueland is the nonprofit Plastic Pollution Coalition.

Citing a paper published in 2021, the petitioners say that although PVA dissolves in water, wastewater treatment doesn’t completely degrade the chemical. The material has significant potential to persist in waterways, oceans, and soils, they argue. Plus, PVA in aquatic ecosystems can mobilize toxics such as metals, pesticides, and flame retardants from sediments to waters, they say. One study found PVA particles, in addition to other types of microplastics, in human breast milk (Polymers, 2022, DOI: 10.3390/polym14132700)

The petition to the EPA is not Blueland’s first move in debates around PVA biodegradability. The company partially funded a paper that the petition cites more than a dozen times (Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, DOI: 10.3390/ijerph18116027). In that article, Charles Rolsky and Varun Kelkar of Arizona State University say that more than 75% of pod-film PVA survives or bypasses wastewater treatment. This was based on an online survey of 527 US households, US Geological Survey water-usage data, and a review of PVA degradation literature.

That 2021 paper has faced criticism from the chemical industry and environmental scientists. Executives at PVA maker MonoSol say Rolsky and Kelkar greatly overestimate the amount of PVA entering US wastewater systems and misinterpret the meaning of the standardized methods used to measure polymer biodegradation.

Ramani Narayan, who studies polymers at Michigan State University, says microorganisms capably break down the PVA used in pod films. He cautions, though, that the material may break down slowly in cold ocean water. Localized hot spots of PVA should be studied for any adverse effects during its transient aquatic lifetime, he adds.

The American Cleaning Institute (ACI), which represents makers of soaps and detergents, says the petition to the EPA is part of a marketing campaign that Blueland is funding to prevent other manufacturers from using PVA packs. A Nov. 15 statement from the ACI also cites a recent study concluding that the grade of PVA used for laundry detergent packs underwent extensive biodegradation in tests that followed international standard protocols (Sci.Tot. Env., 2023, DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.160006).

“If they are so confident that PVA is not a problem, they should welcome a closer look,” Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, a group that supports the petition, says in an emailed response to the ACI’s statement. “This is a serious issue that the EPA should take a closer look at.”


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