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New York City is considering a laundry pods crackdown

Procter & Gamble Co. (P&G) Tide pods brand laundry detergent is displayed for a photograph in Tiskilwa, Illinois, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. Photographer:  Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Procter & Gamble Co. (P&G) Tide pods brand laundry detergent is displayed for a photograph in Tiskilwa, Illinois, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)

By Kendra Pierre-Louis

(Bloomberg) — New York City is considering limiting the types of laundry and dishwashing detergents available in the five boroughs. City Council Member James Gennaro, a Democrat, introduced a bill on Thursday that would make it illegal to sell or distribute detergent pods or laundry sheets that contain polyvinyl alcohol, also known as PVA or PVOH. If approved, the bill would take effect on Jan. 1, 2026.

“The introduction of this bill is a clarion call to rally the scientific community, to to help out in this public policy question about what do we do about the fate of PVA's,” Gennaro told Bloomberg Green. “I have a lot of concerns about what this does to aquatic ecosystems.”

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While detergent pods and sheets “dissolve” in the wash, PVA is ultimately a type of plastic. The bill notes that microplastics (bits of plastic less than 5 millimeters long) and nanoplastics (one-millionth of a millimeter) are ubiquitous sources of pollution in US waterways. Increasingly, these tiny plastic particles are all but impossible to escape. Scientists have found them in paint, on glaciers and even in rain. Around the world, more than 700,000 tons of PVA are produced annually, according to a 2018 study, a figure that’s rising 4% every year.

PVA is “just a plastic that dissolves in water,” said William Hart-Cooper, a bioproducts research chemical engineer with the US Department of Agriculture. He compared PVA’s ability to dissolve to the act of stirring a bit of salt or sugar into a glass of water, noting “you can still taste it if you drink the water.”

Unlike many other plastics, PVA escaped scrutiny for years, in part because it wasn’t widely used. Then in 2012, Procter & Gamble Co. launched Tide Pods, essentially creating the market for laundry pods. Since then, companies including Seventh Generation, Tru Earth and Dropps have started selling dishwashing pods, laundry pods and detergent sheets made with PVA. More recently, the material is being used in food, including protein shake pods that can be dropped into a liquid, shaken up and consumed, as well as edible coatings designed to extend the shelf life of fruit and vegetables.

Many products made with PVA are marketed to customers as more convenient — why deal with a big jug of laundry detergent? — and more environmentally friendly. The US Environmental Protection Agency includes PVA on its Safer Choice list, a program designed to encourage the use of less harmful ingredients in products.

In a statement, P&G said PVA “does not contribute to microplastic pollution,” citing “extensive recent reviews by regulatory agencies around the world, including the EPA and [US Food and Drug Administration].” A spokesperson for True Earth said its PVA products help the “battle against single-use and short-lived plastic containers,” and pointed to the EPA’s seal of approval. Seventh Generation did not respond to a request for comment.

Laundry pods “have been a very important stride forward on the journey of sustainability in the laundry world,” said Alastair Dorward, chief executive officer of Dropps, which describes its pods as biodegradable. Dorward cited ease of use and reductions in emissions, shipping and water use; Dropps estimates it has avoided the use of nearly 6 million plastic bottles since 2018.

For something to biodegrade, microorganisms must break it down into simpler molecules that can in turn be used by other organisms, all in a relatively short timespan. A banana biodegrades within weeks, said Varun Kelkar, an engineering manager with the consultancy Alta Environmental. A plastic water bottle, on the other hand, takes around 450 years.

PVA, which like all conventional plastics comes from fossil fuels, is closer to a plastic bottle than a banana. To break down effectively, it needs precise conditions in wastewater facilities. Those conditions don’t currently exist, said Kelkar and Charles Rolsky, executive director and senior research scientist at the Shaw Institute, an environmental research nonprofit.

In 2021, Kelkar and Rolsky co-authored a peer-reviewed study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that looked at what happens when polyvinyl alcohol enters wastewater treatment facilities, which clean up water sent down the drain before releasing it into the environment. The study found that about 19,000 tons of PVA are used in laundry and dish pods in the US each year. Roughly 11,000 tons reach wastewater treatment facilities, where “about 75% of it is untreated, and will just pass through conventional water treatment,” Rolsky said.

If you throw a plastic bottle into the ocean, it will take a long time to become a microplastic, Rolsky said. But as soon as you put PVA into the laundry, “it goes right through conventional wastewater treatment into the ocean, unlike a bottle which at least has a chance it gets recycled.”

Not everyone agrees with Kelkar’s and Rolsky’s research, which was funded by Blueland, a cleaning products company that competes with brands like Dropps but does not use polyvinyl alcohol.

“We believed that ... if we didn’t fund independent scientific research on this topic, it was unlikely that anyone else would fund this anytime soon,” said Sarah Paiji Yoo, co-founder and CEO of Blueland, who noted that the study was peer-reviewed and presented at a conference for the American Chemical Society.

The American Cleaning Institute, which represents many major producers of household and industrial cleaning products, said in a statement that “detergent packets, along with the ingredients they encapsulate, are safe to use in the home and meet rigorous test methods to ensure they fully dissolve and biodegrade quickly in wastewater treatment after use.”

But there’s other evidence to suggest that PVA is making its way into the environment. A 2023 study in the journal Chemistry & Chemical Technology looked at what happened to laundry pods under typical wash conditions. It found that “sediment can be observed in the pipes after usage of such pods, resulting in the formation of microplastics” that enter the environment.

“You look on the beaches across the world — Singapore, China, Belgium, even the northwest Pacific Ocean — they’re finding PVA microplastics,” said Imari Walker-Franklin, a research chemist at the nonprofit organization RTI International.

When PVA does enter the environment, it can have a host of negative effects. Fish and birds confuse microplastics for food, and as they degrade, “microplastics can not only host heavy metals, but they could also be a hotspot for pathogenic bacteria or viruses or even antibiotic-resistant genes,” Walker-Franklin said.

Polyvinyl alcohol has also been found in the human body. Nanoplastics can enter nerve cells, potentially increasing the risk of Parkinson’s disease. Microplastics, including PVA, have been found in women’s breast milk and placentas.

“This means that plastic has come to colonize babies in the womb,” said Antonio Ragusa, the director of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Maggiore Hospital in Bologna, Italy, and lead author of two studies that found microplastics in women who had recently given birth. The plastic might cause local toxicity for babies by enhancing immune responses even after they’re born, he said.

The New York City bill is not the first to sound the alarm on PVA, or at least ask for additional research. Last year, Blueland, the Plastic Pollution Coalition and a group of 15 nonprofits that work on plastic pollution and climate change petitioned the EPA to revisit its position on polyvinyl alcohol. The group wanted the agency to require PVA manufacturers and processors in its Safer Choice program “to fund and conduct testing under the guidance and direction of independent, third-party scientists.” The EPA denied the petition, and the group pivoted to pushing for changes on the local level, like the bill before New York City Council.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.