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 don’t like the idea of PVA. I watched a video where they showed PVA plastic bags dissolving. At first, the water was clear and then when the bag was dissolved it was cloudy. Although, it is not shown to be harmful currently who is to say it will not be discovered in the future to be. I vote for beeswax.

    Tamara on
  • stay away from the plastics

    dennis beebe on
  • Can you offer both options and let your customers choose between cheaper or cleaner? I would gladly pay a bit more for a cleaner container. And I would also like to see the masses buy something better than they are buying now, even if I would not buy it.

    So offering both is one suggestion.

    If offering both is not possible, my second suggestion is to stick with purity and not compromise.
    Remember, everything touches everything else. Please make whatever you make with that in mind. Dont compromise.

    Cindy Spitzer on
  • Stay clear of a product which ‘dissolves’ into the water; use what are plant products which compost.
    Reusing refillable containers is a very good way to go. Remember when milk bottles went back to the dairy to be sterilized and reused? No, you were too young!Think about what was used before plastic from petrol.

    june Wright on
  • I think you should do both: use the PVOH packaging now, while you keep researching its post-consumer lifespan, and also introduce the beeswax packaging; while the latter may be more expensive, there are still people who will pay for it, as it is more environmentally responsible.

    Virginia Currah on
  • I believe that key word settled it for me . Fossil fuels are being used because we start seeing something we want . Little realizing that its fossil fuel and that’s an unbreakable compound . No to PVA/PVOH . Why keep creating a demand for something that is causing so much harm . Chemical derived from fossil fuels simple do harm no matter how we use them .

    Jorge Tamargo on
  • Don’t do it. PVA/PVOH might not be a solid piece of waste floating in our oceans, but if it is inconclusive whether or not it biodegrades then we are left with something even more insidious in the water. Solid plastic can at least be fished out of a waterway (so to speak), but a liquid plastic cannot. Now the animals in the ocean aren’t just swimming around the plastic, they are actually BREATHING IT IN. That can’t be better, I would say it’s worse by a long shot. People need to learn to let go of some of their “conveniences” when “conveniences” are what’s killing the ecosystem. Just because you can’t see it any more doesn’t mean it’s not there. We need to do better. Please don’t do it, be better. Your other products are showing the way, so keep to your vision. Why does the soap have to be liquid anyway? Can you make a soap that dissolves as easily in water as a bath bomb, maybe fizzes to give that frothy effect of a traditional liquid soap?

  • Considering the crisis we are currently facing, I think reaching the masses is critical at this point. If that takes using dissolvable plastic, then perhaps that’s a reasonable step to take right now. Going entirely plastic-free is awesome, but only a small percentage of people are likely to do that. You’ll have a greater impact if you convince loads and loads of people to do much better than they are currently doing, even if the solution is not 100% perfect.

    (Plus I’m vegan and find beeswax containers a bit off-putting.)

    Jennifer J. Williams on
  • could you open some physical small stores so people can refill products you sell ? Etee bar ? Aha
    That way you don’t even have to worry about packaging for some of your line and you get to sell to more people for cheaper because they only pay for the actual product?

    Emilie on
  • If we don’t know, it’s a no-go. Don’t do it.

    Lisa H on

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