POLYVINYL ALCOHOL (PVA, PVOH) | How Easily Does it Biodegrade?

When we develop products, we stick to these 3 principles:

  1. It has to biodegrade (that means it will decompose into reusable nutrients)
  2. It has to have an eco certification (meaning the ingredients that make our products are 3rd party accredited, so they are best in class for you and our planet)
  3. It’s gotta be plastic free (both to reduce the carbon footprint and, again, to biodegrade)

When we started developing our plastic free liquid dish soap, we wrestled with what plastic alternatives we could use to store it.

The first option we explored was PVOH, PVA, or PVAL - otherwise known as Polyvinyl alcohol.  

PVA/PVOH gained popularity with Dishwasher pods and has since been used to contain a variety of Dishwasher, Laundry detergents and Shampoos for a number of ‘eco brands’, including both 'pods' and also 'laundry sheets', which are becoming increasingly popular.  

PVA/PVOH is technically 'plastic' because it is pliable - bendy and stretchy - but it's not the same plastic as a plastic bag because of what happens to it when it contacts water.

Many companies claim PVA/PVOH is ‘biodegradable’, but when we started digging deeper, this ‘eco-claim’ wasn't so cut and dry.

Why?

PVOH DOESN’T ‘BIODEGRADE’ IT ‘DISSOLVES’

In our research, PVOH does not biodegrade so much as it dissolves into a "non-harmful" monomer, and while those molecules can biodegrade, the time it takes for them to actually biodegrade is a little foggy.  Years, decades, 100 years or more?  Our research wasn't able to provide any conclusive timelines. 

Advocates for PVOH say this is not a problem and it’s a lot better than having mounds of 'solid' plastic floating around the ocean, but it still is leaving ‘something’ behind.  

In a recent Journal article from the Royal Society titled: Microplastics and synthetic particles ingested by deep-sea amphipods in six of the deepest marine ecosystems on Earth, Scientists from Newcastle University conducted what they consider to be a more comprehensive study of microplastics in our Oceans by exploring the ingestion of micro plastics in deep sea trenches.  

By focusing on the deepest reaches of our Oceans, we are better able to glean just how far microplastic pollution has travelled.

“A subsample of microfibres and fragments analysed using FTIR were found to be a collection of plastic and synthetic materials (Nylon, polyethylene, polyamide, polyvinyl alcohol, polyvinylchloride, often with inorganic filler material), semi-synthetic (rayon and lyocell) and natural fibre (ramie). Notwithstanding, this study reports the deepest record of microplastic ingestion, indicating that anthropogenic debris is bioavailable to organisms at some of the deepest locations in the Earth's oceans.” (A. J. Jamieson, L. S. R. Brooks, W. D. K. Reid, S. B. Piertney, B. E. Narayanaswamy and T. D. Linley, The Royal Society Publishing, February 27th, 2019).

PVOH IS OIL BASED = NOT CARBON NEUTRAL

The other challenge with PVOH is that it is derived from petrochemicals (oil based and therefore against dev principal 2).  That said, right now, it's really hard to avoid petrochemicals - hence why we are in the climate crisis we are currently in - because even most 'plant based' cleaners (including our own) contain small amounts of petrochemicals.   

WHY BEESWAX PODS?

Given the unknowns about biodegradation, long term impacts and the reliance on petrochemicals, we chose not to use PVA/PVOH and instead developed our own pod made from all natural materials.  Materials we were already familiar with from our other products - beeswax and other naturally occurring oils, waxes and resins.


What’s great about natural materials is that you don’t need a pile of research to figure out if they decompose - you can just toss them in the earth and know they'll go away.

BUT THERE'S A FLIP SIDE TO OUR BEESWAX PODS
  1. They cost moreR&D is time consuming and expensive.  We are still in the early stages of developing our pods and there are many improvements to be made - both from the design/materials and the manufacturing - and so that means we can't make them as cheaply as their PVA/PVOH counterparts.
  2. There is still 'waste': While the pods are natural and they can be repurposed, reused and composted, there is still 'waste' left behind.  PVOH on the other hand just dissolves.

When it comes to 'price', we did come up with a work around through the Plastic Free Club, but we feel that if we really want to make a change, we need to hit the MASSES and that requires a major drop in the price.  

And this has led us back to a core question.  Should we re-visit PVA/PVOH?

It’s definitely a step forward from traditional plastic, and we're already exploring an improvement that could see a similar film made without oil, but that is a couple years out (at best).  In the meantime, we are left deciding:

SHOULD WE CONTINUE TO DEVELOP OUR OWN ‘WAX SOAP-PODS’ OR SHOULD WE INCORPORATE POLYVINYL ALCOHOL (PVA, PVOH)?  JOIN THE CONVERSATION, COMMENT BELOW.

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Comments


  • I’d like for your company to remain plastic free….even if is dissolves.

    Ida Harris on
  • If we don’t know it’s impact we should bot use it!

    Ann Evans on
  • If one needs to export products use a large container made of natural product like wax and corn husk for example, or returnable glass or metal containers. Personally I like to shop local and refill my containers with products from large containers in stores. Of course the question is are the large containers being recycled back to the original company to refill? That is a solution. 3rd world countries people use plant leaves as plates, sticks for tooth brushes and garbage throw always as containers this too is a solution for our throw away society

    Sylvia on
  • I’m happy with the wax tubes. I mixed 1 cup of oil (either cheap olive oil or mineral oil) 2 wax tubes ( completely rinsed and dry) and 1/4 cup lemon juice melted them together in an old pot, pored the mixture in a glass jar and now it’s a fantastic furniture polish. No waste! Please stop using plastic tape on your boxes. That defeats the idea of being plastic free.

    Debbie Tamplin on
  • I agree that one of the main things is to reach the masses. I am in a position where I don’t mind spending more for the purest quality, but realize that not everyone can do that. Could you still provide the best possible product that costs more and also add a line for those who have to be more thrifty?

    Gina Wiggins on
  • I’m happy with the wax tubes. I mixed 1 cup of oil (either cheap olive oil or mineral oil) 2 wax tubes ( completely rinsed and dry) and 1/4 cup lemon juice melted them together in an old pot, pored the mixture in a glass jar and now it’s a fantastic furniture polish. No waste!

    Debbie Tamplin on
  • Well, wax in sufficient quantity may not be harmless either. A recent molasses spill in the ocean of Hawaii smothered and killed coral reef, yet is entirely “natural.” I think priority should be given to products that are solids and don’t need a container. Tablet shampoos are a good example. Dish soap could easily be applied to a sponge in that way.

    MaryAnne Maigret on
  • The world has gotten into this mess by using materials no one had any idea would be so harmful. If you don’t know how long we’d have to live with dissolvable plastics — or their impact on fish and wildlife — DON’T USE THEM.

    Denise Corradini on
  • For the immediate future, focus on reaching the masses. Meanwhile, keep researching the very best zero waste products/containers. Go in the right direction, even if we can’t hit the ultimate immediately. Be pragmatic.

    Pamela Cauble on
  • I think you no choice right now but to start by using the PVOH. You’ve done a good job laying out the argument in a fair way. But this a business you’re running; it is neither funded nor backed by any external sources who might have their own agenda. You have an agenda and you stick to it. You want to grow your business and establish an awareness of what it takes to be successful both as a stand-alone transparent company and put forth an honest up to date product that works: that is, a product completely comparable with established products but is designed to be virtually biodegradable and competitive in price. And price has to be included in the argument. Your consumers want a product that works as well or better than others and is priced accordingly. You just can’t be a business that subsidizes it’s green product line to accord with the choices of a narrow segment of your market, you wouldn’t last five minutes. Those who are 100% “committed” to green will never be completely satisfied. There is no such thing, I think, as brand loyalty. You’ve caught the wave, in fact you’ve helped establish the wave. Stick to your knitting: that is to create a product that is pretty close to 100% but also is not part of a political/sociological movement. In my opinion your best marketing devices are in the name “ette” ( and what it stands for) and your total up front transparency and honesty. The question I am responding to is proof of your raison d’etre (I think that’s right. I was never strong in French). You’ve explained the alternatives; now go out and sell the capsules promising you will continue to look for beeswax alternative as soon as circumstances and R and D make it practical and affordable.

    John Reble on


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