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Those Laundry Sheets You're Using Are Releasing Plastic Into The Environment

by Rudy Sanchez on 02/12/2024 | 3 Minute Read

Many folks looking to reduce plastic consumption have been attracted to laundry sheets and pods.

You don't have to squint to see the appeal for eco-conscious consumers. Each pod or sheet comes sized for individual washes, so there’s less risk of waste. The packaging is smaller and sometimes comes in plastic-free boxes. Moreover, most brands of these dissolvable laundry products advertise themselves as environmentally friendly, which makes for a persuasive selling point. And, if you're worried about brands reducing carbon emissions, shipping around heavy plastic jugs of detergent really means you're unnecessarily transporting water.

However, several popular brands, like Ecos, EC30, Grove Collective, Earth Breeze, and others, reveal the use of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), a water-soluble synthetic polymer and a type of plastic.

Laundry sheets are typically wrapped in PVA to protect them until use. Its high water solubility means it easily dissolves in the wash and can pass through with the rest of the grey water.

While there are some eco-friendly qualities, like less overall plastic packaging and fewer greenhouse gas emissions emitted from shipping, the PVA used in laundry sheets and pods is plastic that lingers around like most other synthetic polymers, posing potential environmental damage.

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According to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, nearly 77% of PVAs end up in the environment after being processed in wastewater treatment plants WWTP). Most PVA ends up mixed with the sludge collected by WWTPs. This sludge will then either make its way to a landfill, get incinerated, or potentially be used in agriculture as a “biosolid.” Given PVA's high water solubility, some of it, nearly 16%, is released into waterways.

Polyvinyl alcohol is biodegradable, but only under particular conditions. Most wastewater treatment plants in the US weren't designed to biodegrade PVA efficiently, and the study's researchers found that only 10% of PVA degraded after 100 hours, with the rest passing further through the treatment plant.

Researchers found that 8,000 tons of PVA go through WWTP and into the environment annually. It's also critical to note that PVA gets used in many other applications, like textiles, paper, and even eye drops. Polyvinyl alcohol does not accumulate in the body and is generally unharmful if orally ingested by humans, different from many other microplastics.

Of course, more research is needed to understand the impact of PVA on the environment. Still, adding plastic to landfills or incinerating it can hardly be called “sustainable.”

The use of polyvinyl alcohol to wrap these washer sheets is a further example of brands using vaguery and lack of regulation to market their products as “biodegradable” and “sustainable.” Take a look at any if the products on the market and there are claims of them being "plastic-free" with packaging that's awash in corresponding green colors. At least Tru Earth's take on the strips tells you it's "plastic jug-free." While PVA is technically biodegradable, that’s only true in certain conditions rarely found in wastewater treatment plants in the country. Combined with an emphasis on other eco-friendly features, like less packaging, less potential waste, or “carbon neutrality,” the sustainability branding can feel like greenwashing.

Thankfully, consumers who wish to avoid using plastic in the laundry room can look at a brand’s ingredient list to see if it utilizes PVA. And, there still exists better options for eco-conscious folks. After all, you can still buy powdered laundry detergent sold in paper packaging.