New ideas often turn into products marketed as more stuff to buy to make life easier and better. Detergent pods were launched in 2012, an example of newer stuff for cleaning clothes. Even though there have been many different detergents available, the lure of popping a pod into a washing machine, evidently easier than measuring out detergent, has been solid and convincing. Globally, the value of the detergent pods market in 2019 was 9.4 billion dollars with potential for continued growth.
Does the popularity of detergent pods indicate that measuring out laundering detergent is a routine that needs further simplification? One article described pods: “contain detergent and sometimes other cleaning or softening ingredients in a small packet that dissolves in water.” The article summarized detergent pods as the most convenient and most expensive laundry detergent option. The pod covering is made of a manufactured material called polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). Since PVA dissolves in water, detergent is released when the pod comes in contact with water. When using pods, PVA ends up in the wash water. PVA is also used for several other applications, including a thickening or coating agent for paints and glues.
Like many new products on the market, knowledge of materials’ entire life cycle is not required before consumers purchase the product. As a result, many examples of materials have contaminated air, water, and soil (and therefore living beings). Researchers have been studying the fate of the PVA after it is released into the environment. From the compilation of PVA studies, about 61% of PVA ends up in wastewater treatment sludge, handled in a few different ways. Approximately 16% is discharged via treated wastewater that ends up in natural water bodies. Here it has the potential to foam, collect metals and affect aquatic organisms, among other possibilities.
How often do we choose convenience without knowing the short and long-term consequences? Do we sometimes understand the (potentially) harmful effects and still determine what is easiest personally? By the way, powder detergents are the least expensive and the most sustainable.
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work