When the kids were little I think I did a hundred loads of laundry a week. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but I easily did a few loads every couple days, depending on their activity levels. At that time, I was a big fan of the large laundry detergent containers with the built-in spigots. I positioned the detergent on the shelf above the washing machine, pressed the button and let the river flow right into the machine to the count of three, released the button, shut the lid, and voilà, a great and efficient system with no need to get laundry soap all over the little plastic cup that came with it.
Enter the manufacturer, in this case Proctor and Gamble (they were first), who, on a constant quest to improve their products and packaging, developed the Tide pod. Everyone makes them now for laundry and dishwasher soap — a pre-measured dose of detergent, stain-remover and brightener all in one. So simple. So elegant. So easy! Toss in a pod, maybe two, depending on the size of the load, shut the lid, and you’re done. No over-pouring or under-pouring, no counting to three, just the correct amount every time. No fuss, no muss, no spilled liquid detergent, no rinsing out the little plastic cup. It was fantastic, economical, the most efficient distribution system going, an example of a perfect improvement.
Then it hit me. The “package” that the pod came in was not a perfect delivery system — it was plastic, and that sure couldn’t be a good contribution to my washing machine’s effluent. So I did a little research and at first, all I could find were the various manufacturers’ claims that the product was safe. The outside casing of these pods is made of polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA, also known as PVOH, a synthetic polymer and hydrophilic substance, meaning that it dissolves in water.
Now excuse me if I don’t always believe what the manufacturers say. We’ve all been duped before, right? — they said PFAS was perfectly safe and look at the mess that has become — so I asked a couple chemist friends to clarify, but no one could say with certainty although they all promised to look further. Despite follow ups, I couldn’t get a confirm or deny. That was about a year ago, and since I was pretty busy at the time, I shelved the topic. Then a few weeks ago I was talking to my mentee who has a science background and I mentioned my polyvinyl alcohol conundrum.
“Isn’t that what they make liquid tears from?” she asked.
In fact, it was. They call it artificial tears, and it’s available over the counter. Feeling better — surely manufacturers wouldn’t sell a product known as artificial tears if it left a plastic residue in your eyes — but not totally convinced, I dug deeper and apparently, it is true! Polyvinyl alcohol is a water soluble plastic compound that completely breaks down in water leaving no microplastics residue. See here and here.
Given that we now we have microplastics in our tea bags, in every animal that’s been studied, in our bodies, and in our beer, this was indeed good news and something that seems like an environmental asset rather than a liability. Finally, some good news on the plastics front. Also, good to know that my desire for clean clothes is not adding to the plastics mess. PVA costs more to manufacture than regular plastic, but we humans and the earth we live on are worth it.
Kudos to the manufacturers for this great breakthrough. Let’s keep it going.
Happy Pi Day!