Eco-friendly cleaning products company Blueland is urging the Environmental Protection Agency to take a hard look at laundry pods amid a debate on whether they pollute the world’s waterways. Blueland, along with more than a dozen environmental nonprofits, on Tuesday announced a petition urging the EPA to test and regulate the use of polyvinyl alcohol. Otherwise known as PVA or PVOH, the petroleum-based polymer is used in laundry pods and detergent sheets.
The petition claims PVA doesn’t biodegrade fully after dissolving in the wash, causing microplastic particles to be leaked into waterways and soil. It asks the EPA to run health and environmental safety tests on PVA, and remove it from its list of Safer Choice chemical alternatives in the interim. Yet there’s disagreement within the cleaning products industry on whether PVAs pose an actual threat, and at least one trade group called the move a marketing stunt.
Blueland CEO and co-founder Sarah Paiji Yoo told Modern Retail the action comes after Blueland’s own research found pods weren’t as environmentally friendly as some companies might market them to be.
“Us not making pods or sheets wasn’t enough,” she said. “We felt like it was really important to make sure that credible research was done in the space.”
Myriad companies, from laundry stalwarts like Tide and Gain, sell pods, as do companies that market themselves as sustainable alternatives, like Method and Seventh Generation.
The ask for federal intervention comes as consumers are increasingly conscious of the downstream effects of everyday products. About one in five Americans want Congress to prioritize addressing pollution from plastic waste, according to a World Wildlife Fund survey. And more than half say it’s on plastic-producing companies to reduce the waste.
Underpinning the petition is a Blueland-commissioned study published by the International Journal of Environmental and Public Health last summer. It found more than 75% of plastic particles used in pods could be released into waterways and soil. Another study shows PVAs can be found in human breast milk.
Yoo says this research shows why more studies and intervention are needed. And at the very least, those who use PVA in their products should be sure not to call the product plastic-free, she said.
“The brands that are out there touting plastic-free, touting biodegradable, I think that just factually is misleading,” she said. “Polyvinyl alcohol is a plastic.”
Activism or marketing
Blueland’s move was met with criticism from some organizations that have examined PVA in the past. The American Cleaning Institute called it a “misinformation campaign.”
“This marketing campaign, which aims to discredit PVOH and the companies that use it, ignores decades of science and research demonstrating the biodegradability of this chemistry,” ACI said in a news release.
Maryclaire Manard, founder of consumer research guide Cluey, said consumers are likely to get confused with the mixed information. Still, she praised Blueland for calling for more research.
“We’ll make sure to keep an eye on how this ultimately shakes out in order to help inform our consumers of best next steps,” she said.
Overall, she said Blueland’s actions are “an example of a new age of corporate activism, where companies founded with ‘impact’ in their DNA are coming of age.” Manard compared the push to how Billie Razor marketed against the “pink tax,” or craft brewer Brew Dog dubbing itself an “anti-sponsor” of the 2022 FIFA Wold Cup getting held in Qatar. But Blueland goes a step further by making an ask of a federal agency.
And while those on the side of PVAs are calling out Blueland’s action as a publicity stunt, that doesn’t necessarily undercut the effort, Manard said.
“Just because this might benefit Blueland commercially doesn’t mean it can’t be a legitimate call for more research,” she said. “Plus, this would not be the first time a company pointed out a societal problem as part of their external outreach to consumers.”
In addition to laundry and dish pods, PVA is used in other household products like textiles, packaging and cosmetics. The Food and Drug Administration lists it as a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) ingredient.
Sustainably-minded consumer products company Grove Collaborative, which sells laundry pods as well as sheets, earlier this year published an explainer on PVA. It pointed to American Cleaning Institute research showing that PVA biodegrades, and that it doesn’t break down into a microplastic.
CEO Stuart Landesberg told Modern Retail to be wary of industry-commissioned research.
“I very much trust our science and the science that is out there on that, which I think, for what it’s worth, is the consensus opinion,” he said.
While he doesn’t agree with the PVA concern, he said that he applauds Blueland’s efforts to drive consumer awareness of problems around plastics.
“We’re sort of in the same fight here, and I want the rest of the industry to get on our team,” he said.
But for Yoo, there needs to be more research into what effect PVA could be having. As many as 20 billion laundry pods and sheets are used each year. And while there are alternatives like “naked” pods without a film wrap, liquid detergent or powder, the convenience of the pods has turned them into a major part of the laundry industry.
“We poked around and realized there was no body of research on this, which is part of the reason why we believe the industry has been able to continue to sell these products and market these products in a certain way, oftentimes highlighting them as green or eco-friendly,” she said.
A research push
The petition follows about three years of Blueland looking into PVA as it was developing its own laundry tablets. Initial research showed PVAs can fully biodegrade as long as they’re in the presence of certain microbe and in a wastewater facility for an average of seven days.
But Yoo said the team then called up wastewater facilities to see if those conditions existed, and heard that water spent more like two to three days in the facility.
“That just led us to the question ‘Ok how often do the conditions exist? And what percentage of this is then released back into our environment or oceans, rivers and soil?’” Yoo said.
Yoo said she wants consumers to be aware and get involved, but stopped short of saying Blueland is doing this to boost sales of its own product.
Rather, she said its part of a larger effort supported by other groups. The petition is co-signed by the Plastic Pollution Coalition as well as over a dozen environmental nonprofits like Beyond Plastics and Plastic Oceans International.
“Like salt dissolved in water, PVA may not be visible but it’s there and contributing to our plastic crisis at a massive scale. That’s why we’re petitioning the EPA to regulate the use of PVA in consumer packaged goods like detergent pods & sheets,” Beyond Plastics wrote on Twitter.
Within hours of launching on Action Network, the petition netted more than 3,000 signatures.
Yoo compares the push to what happened with the banning of microbeads, which were commonly used in products like soaps and body scrubs but couldn’t be fully broken down. After a bevy of research showing environmental consequences and several state bans, Congress banned the use with the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015.
“We don’t want this to be confused with a marketing campaign,” Yoo said. “This is something that’s so much bigger than us.”