Doing right by the planet can make you happier, healthier, and—yes—wealthier. Outside’s head of sustainability, Kristin Hostetter, explores small lifestyle tweaks that can make a big impact. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oh, the irony. In trying to wash my clothes the green way, I was greenwashed. You might even say I was taken to the cleaners. Or hung out to dry.
Let me explain: more than a year ago, I learned that laundry pods—encased in dissolvable plastic—were bad for the environment. In my quest to find more sustainable, plastic-free household products, I was thrilled to come across laundry “eco-strips,” as an easy swap-out. Instead of the typical plastic jug, the thin compressed sheets are packaged in a recyclable cardboard envelope and marketed as plastic-free. I promptly ordered a year’s supply and told everyone who would listen about my new discovery.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that what holds those innocuous little strips together is a sneaky type of plastic called polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA. It’s the same exact stuff that encases laundry (and dishwasher) pods, and though it’s designed to dissolve as soon as it hits water, it is indeed plastic. A very controversial type of plastic. To learn more about PVA and come up with sustainable alternatives, I connected with Dianna Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition, a nonprofit working towards a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts.
The PVA Controversy
PVA is a water-soluble synthetic polymer (a fancy word for plastic that readily binds itself to water molecules). You’ll find it on the ingredient list of virtually every laundry or dishwasher pod and every laundry sheet or strip. PVA has excellent barrier properties, so it’s good at holding together liquids and other squishy stuff, like soap. It’s also really good at dissolving. That’s why it vanishes in our washing machines and dishwashers. But does it really disappear? “When you stir a spoonful of sugar or salt into water, it dissolves, but is it gone?” Cohen asks. “Take a taste and you have your answer. It’s the same with PVA.”
The dissolved PVA slides right down the tubes and off it goes to the treatment plant with your dirt, suds, and wastewater. What happens next depends on who you ask.
According to the American Cleaning Institute, PVA polymers are “fully biodegraded by microorganisms in water treatment facilities and the environment.” But Cohen, a slew of other leading advocates for clean oceans, and this 2021 study in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health which looks at PVA degradation U.S. wastewater treatment plants, say that is simply not the case. “There is a serious lack of unbiased research on the human and environmental health effects of PVA,” says Cohen because existing research was funded by companies with biased interests. “We do, however, know that PVA has been found in human breast milk and in fish, which indicates that it does not simply vanish in wastewater treatment plants. It’s making its way into our bodies and our environment.”
Plastic Pollution Coalition, as well as many other advocacy groups like like Plastic Oceans, Beyond Plastics, and 5 Gyres, contend that we simply don’t know enough about the effects of PVA—which is why the groups have come together to call on the EPA to conduct an independent study to figure it out. “We need the EPA to take swift and urgent action to study the full ecological and health impacts of PVA in order to best protect people and our planet from potential harm,” says Cohen. The group has currently collected close to 23,000 signatures on a petition to get the EPA to conduct extensive tests on PVA biodegradability and its potential impact on the environment and human health. They want a few thousand more. You can add your name here.
Laundry Soaps That Are Truly Plastic-Free
So what’s an environmentalist to do? First, avoid buying detergent in plastic containers. Second, check the ingredient list and if you see a lot of long, chemical-ish words, be suspicious. These things are bad: optical brighteners, chlorine, formaldehyde, synthetic nonylphenol ethoxylates, phosphates, phthalates. Third, if you have a refill shop near you, BYO containers and support it. We need the concept of refill shops to catch on in U.S.
Cohen helped me come up with a few green detergent ideas, all of which are quite affordable.
DIY Laundry Soap
Combine 14 ounces of washing soda, 14 ounces of borax, or baking soda, with 4.5 ounces of natural castile soap flakes. Store the mixture in a sealed glass jar. Use one to three tablespoons per load, depending on size.
Cost: about .10 per load.
I’ve been using these for several weeks with good results. Just put five to seven nuts (which are really berries) into the included muslin sack and toss in the wash. The shells contain saponin, a natural soap which releases into the water. Soap nuts don’t generate a lot of suds (because they lack the chemical foaming agents we’re used to) and they’re not for tough stains. But for regular use, they’re pretty cool. You can use soap nuts five to eight times before the saponin wears off. Compost the spent nuts and replace with new ones. I’ve been adding a few drops of lavender essential oil to the bag to give my laundry a light fragrance—the nuts alone are odorless.
Cost: about .23 per load.
Meliora Laundry Powder Detergent
This powder also gets my thumbs up. Made with non-toxic ingredients and shipped in curbside recyclable packaging, it comes in several all-natural scents. Meliora also makes a Soap Stick Stain Remover, which I use to rub any tough spots before washing.
Cost: about .23 per load
More Sustainable Laundry Tips
Choosing a non-toxic, plastic-free detergent isn’t the only way to green up your laundry process. Here are some other tips.
Wear Clothes Longer
Don’t mindlessly toss clothes into the hamper after a wear. Ask yourself if those jeans really need washing, or can you fold them up and wear them again?
Turn Clothes Inside Out Before Washing
This will make your clothes last longer by protecting colors from premature fading and preventing snags during laundering.
Fill the Machine
Say no to half loads; they waste water and energy.
Use Cold Water
Unless your clothes are really dirty, go for the cold wash. You’ll save money and energy, and your clothes will last longer and shed fewer microfibers, which is another environmental concern.
Like cold-washing, air drying will also save you money and energy, even if you partially air dry and then finish it off in the dryer to release wrinkles.
Skip the Dryer Sheets
Yep, they contain PVA, too. I’ve been using wool dryer balls for over a year and they do a fine job of releasing wrinkles, fluffing things up, and reducing (most, but not always all) static.
Avoid Dry Cleaning
You know that distinctive smell that hits you when you walk into a dry cleaner? Those are chemicals. Most dry cleaners use a host of toxic chemicals and petroleum-based solvents that can be harmful to humans and the environment.
Kristin Hostetter is the head of sustainability at Outside Interactive, Inc. and the resident sustainability columnist on Outside Online.