An Honest Look at PVA (Polyvinyl Alcohol)
We did a deep dive with our resident chemist to find out how sustainable this ingredient is.
What is polyvinyl alcohol?
Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA, PVOH, PVAL) is a biodegradable polymer that’s used as a binding agent, creating a detergent, neither liquid nor solid that keeps the laundry detergent sheets together.
A polymer is a substance made up of many, many molecules all strung together. PVA starts its life as ethylene, a natural gaseous hormone given off by plants that cause the fruit to ripen. In this case, the ethylene is synthetically produced (but nature identical), then turned into vinyl acetate through a chemical reaction with oxygen and acetic acid (in diluted form known as vinegar), then polymerized (bonded to form repeating molecules) and then dissolved in alcohol to become a water-soluble polymer.
What it does: PVA has oodles of uses from strengthening textile yarns and making paper more grease and oil resistant to creating children's play slime and contact lens lubricant (yes, it’s safe enough to go in your eyes!).
What does Boulder Clean use PVA for?
Boulder Clean chose to bind our laundry detergent sheets, and encase our laundry packs and dishwasher pods with PVA because it's strong, colorless, odorless, biodegradable, and non-toxic. The PVA film (polyvinyl alcohol) we use is completely water soluble and biodegradable. The film is consumed by microbes to form water and carbon dioxide. The film does not persist in the environment, contaminate the recycling stream or contribute to micro-plastic pollution.
Why we use it: Pods and Sheets streamline cleaning, which is always a good thing! But, in this case, all it takes to make doing laundry and dishes a little easier is a convenient pack of pre-measured detergent.
Does polyvinyl alcohol contain microplastics?
The unintentional release of microplastic into the aquatic environment (marine as well as freshwater) is of concern for human health and the ecosystem. Microplastic refers to microscopic solid particles (i. e. not water soluble) made of a synthetic polymer, with a high resistance to biodegradation.
The recent attack on detergent packets and sheets ignores decades of evidence on film biodegradability. PVOH is recognized as one of the very few vinyl polymers soluble in water that is susceptible to ultimate biodegradation in the presence of suitably acclimated microorganisms. PVA dissolves into a non-harmful monomer; it does not turn into a MicroPlastic. The scientific studies prove that the monomers eventually decompose into reusable nutrients over time. These non-toxic monomers are a whole lot better for our environment than the single-use plastics that wind up in our oceans and landfills.
In conclusion, PVOH used in liquid detergent capsule films does not meet any of the definitions of microplastic: (1) it is not micro- or nano-sized; (2) it is highly water-soluble; and (3) it is biodegradable in the environmental conditions where it is discharged.
The overarching nomenclature of PVOH covers a broad variety of polymer designs – several of which do not exhibit the same water solubility and biodegradability as the PVOH grades used for detergent film applications. Thus, it is not surprising that such materials may indeed persist sufficiently long in the environment to be detectable.
Is polyvinyl alcohol toxic to humans?
It is not toxic. However, some reports show that it can cause irritation of the skin and mucous membranes. However, the ingredients inside the PVA encasement are often not as safe. Rest assured with Boulder Clean detergents, all of our products are made with ingredients that are safe for you, your home and the planet.
Learn more about the safety of our ingredients here:
Why are we featuring this ingredient?
PVA is sometimes confused with polyvinyl acetate (aka PVA or PVAc – a wood glue), an easy enough mistake to make given they sometimes go by the same acronym. PVA is also sometimes thought to be related to polyvinyl chloride (aka PVC – the poison plastic). We wanted to make it clear that even though they all contain the word “polyvinyl” and are all types of polymers, they are all indeed very different substances.
Polyvinyl alcohol = non-toxic, biodegradable polymer
Polyvinyl acetate = rubbery polymer commonly used as glue
Polyvinyl chloride = toxic plastic polymer that often contains phthalates and heavy metals
Still have any lingering questions about polyvinyl alcohol? Let us know in the comments and we’ll do our best to respond!
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