April 21, 2024

Last month, Democratic New York City Councilman James Gennaro introduced bill it will change the way countless New Yorkers do their laundry – by banning detergent pods.

More specifically, the bill — called “Pods are Plastic” — proposed a ban on dishwashing and detergent pods coated with polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA, a type of plastic that disintegrates when submerged in water. Laundry and soap companies have long argued that the PVA coating is completely safe and 100 percent biodegradable, but proponents of the bill say that neither claim is true.

“Products and profits should not come at the expense of the environment,” Sarah Paiji Yoo, co-founder of a plastic-free cleaning product company called Blueland, said in a statement. Blueland, which makes PVA-free laundry and dishwasher tablets, helped write the bill and has been a vocal critic of PVA for years. In 2022, the company helped a petition asking the EPA to remove PVA from a list of chemicals it deemed safe to use. (The EPA rejected the request last year.)

The Pods Are Plastic bill faces uncertain prospects in the New York City Council. However, if successful, it will only go a short way towards mitigating laundry-related microplastic pollution. Research suggests that billions of plastic microfibers shed from our clothes every day – when we wear them, when we wash and dry them. And even more microplastics are released upstream, when clothes are manufactured.

“It’s a multifaceted issue,” said Judith Weis, a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Rutgers University. To fix this, environmental advocates are calling for more systemic solutions — not just a ban on PVA, but new laws requiring washing machine filters, better clothing design and a shift away from fast fashion.

Long before consumers crack open a container of Tide Pods, their laundry has already started generating microplastic pollution. This is because some 60 percent off clothing today is made with plastic. Polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex – they’re all just different types of fossil fuel-derived plastic. And more plastic clothing may be on the horizon than fossil fuel companies turn to plastic production in response to the world’s transition away from the use of fossil fuels for electricity generation and transport.

The most media attention focused on microplastics that end up in the washing of clothes. And with good reason: According to s 2019 study in the journal Nature, washing machines can generate up to 1.5 million plastic microfibers per kilogram of washed material. Too small to get caught in standard washing machine filters, some 200,000 to 500,000 metric tons some of these microfibers slip out into wastewater every year and eventually make their way into the marine environment. This is about a third of all microplastics that directly enter the world’s oceans.

Orange bowls of Tide Pods on a shelf
Tide Pod containers on a grocery store shelf.
Alex Tai/Sopa Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Ocean microplastics have been linked to a range of adverse health effects in marine animals, including inhibited development, reproductive issues, genetic damage and inflammation. Weis said these observations are troubling for their own sake — “I’m worried about the marine animals themselves,” she told Grist — but they could also have implications for the health of people, who may eat microplastic-contaminated seafood. Researchers have found microplastics throughout people’s bodies – in their brains, blood streams, kidneysand, most recently, in 62 of 62 placentas tested – and it is not yet clear what the impact might be.

But, as Grist reported last year, there are many other ways microplastics escape from our clothes. For example, wearing only plastic clothing causes abrasion and the subsequent release of microplastics into the air. Some researchers think it actually causes more microplastic pollution if laundry was done; they estimate that a single person’s normal clothing use can release more than 900 million microfibers per year, compared to just 300 million from laundry.

And then there is the manufacturing stage, which is perhaps the least understood source of plastic microfiber pollution. Every part of the garment making process can release microplastics, from the initial polymerization of natural gas and oil to the actual weaving, knitting and subsequent processes that turn fabric into garments. According to s 2021 white paper from the nonprofit The Nature Conservancy and the consulting firm Bain and Company, scouring by dyeing, printing and pre-washing clothes releases billions of plastic microfiber particles into factory wastewater every day—and not all of these particles are destroyed or filtered out by wastewater. treatment.

The white paper estimates that pre-consumer textile manufacturing releases about 120,000 metric tons of microplastics into the environment annually – less than laundry or wearing clothes, but the same order of magnitude.

At the opposite end of the textile life cycle are even more opportunities for synthetic clothing to shed microplastics. Discarded textiles that are burned can release microfibers—and dangerous chemicals—into the air, while those that are littered or sent to a landfill can release them into the soil. There is some evidence to suggest that earthworms and other organisms can transport these microplastics in deeper layers of soil, where they are more likely to contaminate groundwater.

“While it’s absolutely important to make sure we’re addressing loss that occurs during the wear and wash phase, … it’s even more important to make sure we’re addressing microfiber contamination across the full lifecycle,” said Alexis Jackson, Associate Director from The Nature Conservancy’s California Oceans Program.

Woman takes laundry out of a washing machine.
A woman loads clothes into a front loading washing machine.
In Pictures Ltd. / Corbis via Getty Images

Unlike other sources of microplastic pollution, detergent pods are deliberately added to laundry. They date back to the early 2010s, when Procter and Gamblenotorious PVA coated Tide Pods – described at the time as the firm’s greatest laundry innovation in a quarter of a century. The PVA design, said to have taken eight years to come up with, was truly a breakthrough: it separated detergents, brighteners and fabric softeners into separate chambers so they wouldn’t mix before entering the wash cycle. And, unlike previous designs, PVA film can dissolve in hot or cold water.

Over the past nine years, detergent pods’ market value in the US has grown by 36 percent to $3.25 billion; it is estimated to exceed $3.5 billion by 2025.

To protect that growth, laundry industry trade groups assured consumers that pods’ PVA plastic coating biodegrades and won’t harm people or ecosystems. The American Cleaning Institute, which represents US cleaning product companies including Procter and Gamble, SC Johnson and Unilever, argues that, “[w]When exposed to moisture and microorganisms, PVA breaks down into non-toxic components, making it a more sustainable alternative to traditional plastics.”

But some experts disagree. Especially a 2021 literature review conducted by researchers at Arizona State University—and commissioned by Blueland—found that less than a quarter of the PVA that reaches wastewater treatment plants actually breaks down; 77 percent, about 8,000 metric tons per year, is released intact into the environment. This is not because PVA cannot be degraded by microorganisms; it’s just that the right microorganisms are often not present in wastewater treatment plants, or the PVA doesn’t stay at the plants long enough to actually break down. According to research sponsored by cleaning product industry groups, it can take 28 days for at least 60 percent of PVA to break down and 60 days for 90 percent of it to break down.

There isn’t “a single wastewater treatment plant in the United States where water sits with those microbes for anything close to 28 days,” Charles Rolsky, a co-author of the Blueland-funded study who is now a senior research scientist at the Shaw works. Institute in Maine, told The Washington Post in 2022. “It could be a week at most, but more realistically it’s days to hours.”

In response to Grist’s request for comment, the American Cleaning Institute rejected “the misinformation campaign waged by Blueland” and said the New York City bill to ban PVA is “unnecessary.” A spokesperson for the trade group directed Grist to previously published statements and a online chart which says that the type of PVA used in detergent pods is of a higher quality than the PVA analyzed by the Blouland-funded study, and that detergent pod PVA “completely dissolves and biodegrades within hours of wastewater treatment.”

Procter and Gamble referred Grist to the American Cleaning Institute’s communications team.

Zara storefront with people walking in front
Shoppers walk past Zara, a fast fashion store with locations around the world.
Budrul Chukrut / Sopa Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Getting a handle on the clothing microplastics problem will require a range of solutions. Right now, most of the focus is on washing machine filters that conscientious consumers can install in their homes. The best filters available today can theoretically capture upward of 80 percent of laundry microplastics. Filter-adjacent technologies – such as the Cora Ball or Guppyfriend bag which can be placed in washing machines with laundry — can also help.

A small number of states have consider laws to make filters mandatory for device manufacturers, or to encourage the purchase of filters by consumer discounts. Some companies – like Samsung – try to get ahead of potential regulation by designing their own filter technology that can be connected to standard machines; others design washing machines with built-in microplastic filters.

Meanwhile, scientists are trying to design clothes that won’t shed so many microfibers in the first place. Yarns with more twists and woven structuresfor example, tend to release fewer microfibers, as do materials cut with heat and lasers (as opposed to scissors).

“I’m optimistic that science can solve this problem,” said Juan Hinestroza, a professor of fiber science and apparel design at Cornell University. With sufficient research funding, he thinks it will be possible – in less than a generation – to design synthetic clothing that sheds virtually no microplastics.

However, perhaps the most holistic solution is to completely regulate and limit the use of plastics for clothing and laundry applications. The fast fashion industry in particular is a major contributor to the microplastics problem, if only because of the large amount of synthetic clothing it produces. Weis said it’s time to hold big clothing companies accountable for their products’ release of microplastics, possibly through expanded producer responsibility laws that make companies financially responsible for the trash and pollution they create. New York State is currently considering it such a law, although mostly related to packaging, not clothing or microplastics. Weis also called for general plastic restrictions as part of the global plastics treaty currently being negotiated by the United Nations.

Yoo supports similar solutions. In the meantime, however, she continues to push for the New York City bill banning PVA. “This bill is about so much more than just pods,” she said. “I understand when people say, ‘It’s not the biggest problem,’ … but I think it can be a very important starting point. It sends an important signal to businesses that plastic products should not be designed to go down our drains and into our water.”

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