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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  • 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
  • Provide both options unless cost prohibitive. Then go pure and trust your customers to pay for a better Earth.

    TErry HAmlin on
  • The larger goal of Etee, in my mind, is to help free consumers from the use of plastic. I would say, in keeping with your mission, you should keep consistent and steer clear of PVA/PVOH, given its potential to leave some form of “plastic” behind. There also seems to be lack of clarity around the dissolved matter from PVA/PVOH, so it might be better to just steer clear of the risks, even if there is a price jump for consumers. I understand this could deter some folks, but really, we all need to make tiny sacrifices if we want our society to start changing and becoming more sustainable on a real level.

    Kaili B on
  • I believe you are an ethical company and you should do whatever you feel best. I would trust your decision.

    Shelley Butler on
  • Stay away from plastics.

    Leslie Henry on
  • I think you should offer both to offer “better” solutions for a wider demographic. Dish soap is one of the main household items that I’ve had the hardest time finding a more eco-solution for and your beeswax pod is the best solution I’ve come across. But, I still haven’t ordered them because of the cost, although I want to support this. Now that I’ve just been more informed about the dissolvable pods, I will choose to pay extra for the beeswax option because of the unseen repercussions that will likely show themselves in the future with the dissolvable plastics. Perhaps you could offer both until you are able to perfect and offer the beeswax ones at a lower price? I want to share these options with my family but they are low-income and they barely get by so there is no way they will be paying over $5 for 16oz of dish soap.

    Bianca on
  • I am torn as they both have their pluses and minuses, but I like the idea of offering both and let the consumer decide!

  • Please do not use dissolve able plastics. NO to PVA/PVOH

    Melinda on
  • I like the beeswax, not the PVA/PVOH. We need to stop putting that plastic stuff, dissolve able or not, into the environment.

    Rita Helen Lumsden on
  • If a dissolvable microplastic material will still dissolve into microplastic fibers, which are already ubiquitous in the environment and also in organisms, then count me as a “No”.

    James Oppenborn on

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