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

Posted by Steve Reble on

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


  • Please avoid using PVA/PVOH, or any other plastics. Please & thanks.

    Martha Sweeting on
  • Keep using the beeswax is my vote.

    Maurine Winkley on
  • I don’t like the idea of something dissolving into water. There has to be something left of it—will that something be harmful to the environment? I much prefer the idea of something that is compostable.

    Pat Sellergren on
  • It still sounds like it causes water pollution, so I would say stay away from that and keep the compostable containers.

    Christina Jackson on
  • This is a tough question, and I liked the response that proposed using dissolvable plastic as a bridge technology while you continue your research. When I did some very hasty research of my own I came across this story on Chilean scientists who had developed a dissolvable “plastic” that they said was not petroleum based. Is this of any help — or is the following article disingenuous? https://ssir.org/articles/entry/Fighting_Plastic_Pollution_With_Bags_That_Dissolve_in_Water

    Ann Redd on
  • No to plastics of any type please.

    Thank you

    Lynn Bowen on
  • I would love to see a plastic free world (from this point on) and products that do no harm to the environment. I do and will pay somewhat more for that.

    Frances on
  • Offer both along with some education for your customers, so that they will know exactly what they are getting. Keep working toward the cleanest, safest product possible at an affordable price.

    LIsa Jeffs on
  • I dont want to use any petroleum based product. I will be looking for alternatives to anything plastic.

    Victoria Chang on
  • Your two (2) possibilities are way better than what we know currently. I like the choice idea. I find higher prices are a hard sell to my wife. Give me a chance to acclimate her to a different paradigm.

    ;-)

    Don on


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