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.



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).


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.   


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.

  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:


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  • Why not have your soaps in more solid form that don’t need “pods” of any kind? That would seem to be the obvious solution to both problems. Note, you have probably seen the ads on TV for little tablets that go in water to become dishwashing soap, handwashing foam, and general surface cleaners. They advertise this as the last plastic bottle (theirs) you’ll ever buy; I have a metal pump top that fits on a Mason canning jar. Get a bunch of those as an add-on to tablets.

    Wendie Howland on
  • Because pods have to be packaged in plastic containers and still rupture easily, I’d rather see wax containers used for liquid products

    Rebecca Kightlinger on
  • use PVA/PVOH for now as you continue to develop wax soap-pods. I believe for them to appeal to the masses they have to be economical and easy to use.

    Mavis on
  • I have bought dishwasher pods from 7th Generation that are encased in this I believe. It worries me that it dissolves and incorporates chemicals in its makeup that will then persist in the environment for an uncertain amount of time. Normally I buy DW powder in cardboard boxes with a metal pull-down “spout”. I like and appreciate your guiding principles when it comes to picking packaging – if you can stick with those that would be my preference.

    Nicole Goffinet on
  • My concerns with wax based pods would be how does the wax behave when it is melted and comes in contact with your dishes or clothes and when it is discharged will it then solidify in the sewage system like fat does??

    As new technology arises, like PVOH you have to weigh wether or not it is harmful to our water.

    Personally, being on a septic system, I would avoid wax products and be more inclined to use the PVOH products.

    Sandra K Roach on
  • I think continue with developing your natural pods. I see the PVAL as to much of an unknown. I understand the need for a price reduction but at what cost to your principals. I think in this day and age your message of caring for the environment has attracted so many. You don’t want to lose those customers or weaken that message.

    Kristine on
  • “PVOH on the other hand just dissolves away.” Yes, but “away” is still in our water supply, and as you point out, we don’t know the long term impact of the monomers that are left behind. There IS waste – we just can’t see it. The wax soap pods can be composted – there are other options out there, though. The natural foods industry has been using gelatine for capsules (and vegan, non-animal gelatine) for years. It might be worth exploring that option in a thicker, ALSO dissolvable, membrane to contain the soap. The stuff they use is injested, and has to pass various certifications for safety. OR: use a neutral, and REFILLABLE sturdy option: stainless steel tubes with silicone (or other neutral material) stoppers, that can be recycled or returned for RE-USE! The packaging costs, but you could offer a discount to customers who return their tubes for refilling. *this could also open up the option of you marketing your product to eco-friendly shops across the country that have refill bars!! (Tare Shop in Halifax, Earth’s General Store nd Carbon Environmental in Edmonton as examples).

    Sydney Lancaster on
  • Please stick with then wax pods! Better “safe” waste than the unknown consequences of trying to save money using a petro based pod. And, as mentioned, it goes against principle #2. Meaning you would be abandoning a fundamental driver which could cost you consumer trust and confidence.

    Lois on
  • would rather you continue developing “wax” soap pods. Don’t like PVOH

    paula aicklen on
  • This is hard. My husband and I don’t use a lot and I can fit some things into my budget, but for a family of 5 like my daughter’s, it is just not possible. On the other hand, I would love to see completely biodegradable products in the future. Can’t you do both?

    L. E. Bruce on

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