You probably don’t think twice when you put laundry pods in your washing machine.
However, laundry pods are not good for the environment since some ingredients are toxic.
Laundry pods are also rarely biodegradable, which is another environmental concern.
Here’s what you need to know about laundry pods and sustainability.
1. What Are Laundry Pods Made Of?
Laundry pods are pods of detergent coated in polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) film.
The ingredients of detergent will vary from brand to brand.
Generally speaking, laundry detergent contains some of the following:
- Acrylic acid homopolymer
- Citric acid
- Calcium chloride
- Sodium hydroxide
- Sodium bicarbonate
- Sodium laureth sulfate
- Potassium chloride
- Fatty acids
- Fatty alcohols
- Alkyl ethoxy sulfate
- Borax pentahydrate
- Alkylbenzene sulfonic acid
- Tetrasodium EDTA
- Anionic surfactant
- Disodium distyrylbiphenyl disulfonate
- Hydrogen peroxide
2. How Do Laundry Pods Affect the Environment?
All drains lead to the ocean.
While the water from your washing machine goes through wastewater treatment plants, this doesn’t mean that all microplastics or pollutants are caught.
Some of the ingredients in laundry pods are harmful to the environment.
For example, hydrogen peroxide is often presented as a more sustainable alternative to chlorine-based bleach since it’s biodegradable, but it is toxic for some marine life – especially in larger doses.
Other studies have shown that silica – a common ingredient in laundry pods – can also be toxic for marine life.
Another example is EDTA, where researchers point out that – although not considered toxic – it may mobilize heavy metals, which can pose a risk to groundwater as well as marine life and the humans who consume the exposed fish.
3. What Happens to the Plastic in Laundry Pods?
Since the PVA casing dissolves to release the detergent, most consumers assume it is completely biodegradable.
However, the material actually might not degrade completely.
Research suggests that around 77% of PVA is still intact after going through a wastewater treatment facility.
While PVA is technically biodegradable, this process requires the right conditions such as oxygen levels, bacteria present, temperature and more to actually take place.
In the US, around 7,000 metric tons of PVA evade degradation in wastewater treatment plants annually.
As mentioned earlier, all drains go to the ocean, so most of the PVA will end up there.
Moreover, the PVA may absorb other materials like heavy metals and pesticides, which can further the spread of pollution.
It can also act as a foaming agent – excess foam can interfere with the marine ecosystem.
4. Do Laundry Pods Cause Microplastic Pollution?
PVA is intended to be biodegradable, so in theory, it should not contribute to microplastic pollution.
However, based on the research mentioned above, the lack of biodegradability is concerning.
Moreover, studies show that PVA degrades very poorly in marine conditions by itself.
Although PVA containing glycerol was slightly more biodegradable in seawater, the two samples only had biodegradation percentages of 5.3% and 8.4% after 28 days – which is still very low.
When it comes to PVA in freshwater with municipal sewage sludge, it has a biodegradation rate of 13% within 21 days.
Some kinds of PVA can degrade by up to 60% within 32 days, depending on the specific type of PVA, but waterways may not have the correct bacteria present to facilitate this.
Microplastics are defined as plastic particles less than five millimeters in length, so even if PVA does not become this small, it is still a source of plastic pollution.
5. Are Laundry Pods Biodegradable?
Whether laundry pods are biodegradable depends on whether all the ingredients are biodegradable, but generally, they do not appear to be biodegradable.
As mentioned earlier, PVA does not biodegrade as well as consumers may initially think.
In fact, it degrades very poorly in waterways and the ocean, as the studies above show.
Many of the other common ingredients in laundry pods are not biodegradable either.
For example, studies show that EDTA cannot be degraded in wastewater treatment facilities under normal circumstances.
However, research suggests it can be broken down with the help of specific types of bacteria and in treatment facilities with EDTA-containing effluents.
Other studies show that acrylic acid polymers – another common ingredient in laundry pods – might be degraded by some microorganisms to some extent, but much is still unknown and its biodegradability is considered very poor.
6. Are Laundry Pods Recyclable?
Laundry pods are not recyclable.
Once you open your washing machine, the detergent and the PVA film have completely dissolved, so there is nothing left to recycle.
Plus, while PVA is recyclable, putting a laundry pod in your recycling bin will cause contamination as the pod can easily leak.
The recycling center also will not have the means to separate the film from the detergent.
7. Are Laundry Pods Toxic?
Some of the ingredients in laundry pods are toxic, and others are not – it really depends on the specific brand and product.
For example, Acrylic acid homopolymer has low toxicity.
Anionic surfactants also have low toxicity.
Carboxymethylcellulose is also regarded as safe.
The dose is important when it comes to toxicity.
Since laundry pods are small and are made of a wide range of ingredients, the amount of each substance is also pretty small.
Sodium bicarbonate is essentially baking soda.
There are reports claiming that baking soda may be toxic to marine life, but this should not apply to laundry pods as the baking soda will react with citric acid, leaving behind only water and carbon dioxide.
There is more reason to worry about some of the other ingredients.
Potassium chloride is toxic in large doses, so it is unlikely there will be enough in one laundry pod to cause significant harm to humans or animals.
Sodium lauryl sulfate can be sourced from plants like coconut or from petroleum; plant-based sodium lauryl sulfate is biodegradable.
Raw sodium lauryl sulfate is toxic for aquatic life, but again, there is going to be little of this ingredient in a single laundry pod.
Although calcium chloride may be toxic to marine life, this impact is usually due to road salt entering waterways and not from laundry pods or other sources.
Fragrances and dyes are vague terms, so natural, plant-based dyes may be fine, but synthetic dyes and fragrances may be toxic.
Fatty acids and fatty alcohols are also vague terms.
Fatty acids can come from plant fats or animal fats; fatty alcohols can come from the same sources.
Fatty alcohols may be moderately toxic for marine life.
As for PVA, for the most part, it is non-toxic.
However, PVA-containing glycerol may be somewhat toxic for marine life.
8. What Are Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Laundry Pods?
Refillable Liquid Laundry Detergent
PVA-film is not a necessary facet of laundry detergent.
Liquid detergents seem to be just as effective.
Some stores offer refilling stations for laundry detergent so you can reuse the packaging, but these are not accessible to everyone.
There are also brands making their detergent with non-toxic or low-toxic materials.
Soap nuts are a type of berry with cleaning properties because they contain saponin, a common soap ingredient.
They are natural, renewable, and biodegradable.
They can be used to wash clothes and eliminate odors, but they do not contain any fabric softeners or whiteners, so they may not be suitable for everything in your wash basket.
Laundry Bar Soap
Some people use bar soap shavings to wash their clothes if they run out of laundry detergent.
They’ll often mix this with borax.
This is arguably more sustainable than laundry detergent since bar soap is zero-waste, but borax is sourced via mining, so it’s detrimental to the environment.
Although rare, you can also find laundry detergent in bar form, similar to a regular bar of soap.
These are zero-waste and are often made from non-toxic or low-toxic materials compared to conventional laundry pods.