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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  • I strongly believe in no more more plastics. The world has enough. Just because it dissolves can’t mean it goes away.

    susan alvey on
  • They may make the claim to be dissolvable. But, they do not. There is often residue left over in my washing machine (and I use them ever so infrequently), the product doesn’t go down the drain and dissolve. It stays in my machine and I have to clean it out. I don’t use these pods in my dishwasher for the same reason. I have heard that they can clog up your machine as they do not dissolve. Stick with the wax. Could we send it back to you for reuse?? Bees work hard to make that stuff. Thanks for all the work and for asking.

    Caroline on
  • I say go with your own product. It’s going to take a couple of years for the masses to start thinking about converting anyway, and I’m more of the Bernie school of thought when it comes to doing the right thing: less bad is not good. People get complacent with “less bad” and forget there’s more to be done. Ya gotta go all the way, and do the good thing.

    Kathy Bradley on
  • Yes, we should use biodegradable plastic as soon as possible and also charge for plastic bags like European countries.

    Eileen Melva Steffens on
  • YES OF COURSE we should lead a plastic free way of life! Please continue do this and improving our footprint on this earth. Thank you so much!

    Sarah Berto on
  • PVOH is very low toxicity (professional opinion) other than some local irritation effects and is much better than regular plastics. Minimal information about long-term environmental issues with solutions of the monomer in the environment … on the other hand, it is widely used in many industries so there is a lot of it out there regardless of what this company chooses to do. Nothing is perfect, life is a compromise, there are worse materials out there. Why not do a test run?


    Richard Gregson on
  • All the strides your company has made is remarkable and an immense improvement on the current plastic options. I say incorporate PVOH now and get a ‘better’ product in use now, and continue to develop your truly biodegrable products. Once they are perfected, perhaps the world will have changed enough to support higher priced yet superior products like yours, and hopefully those products will become standard.

    Dora WInter on
  • PVOH is a step forward and is viable, today. The world didn’t create the mess we’re in overnight and it’s going to take time and more than a couple of transit stops to get to a better place.

    Thomas on
  • Well done. You are obviously doing your homework better than most of us could possibly do and I feel confident that you will come up with the right answer. I would be happy to pay more if it helped with the plastic disaster.

    ROsalind on
  • I say stick to your core principles and leave PVOH to the big corporations to develop.

    Ken Cory on

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