In 2023, we'll be saying goodbye to some products in our laundry and dishwashing assortments - namely sheets and pods. If you've been in the store and asked us about these products, you have likely heard our opinion on these products... that they aren't our preferred solution, but there are some times where these products may be a good choice for someone. Here are some of our most answered questions about our decisions:
Gimme the TL;DR version?
Nope, this one is kind of intense. Stick with us here.
Honestly, this has been a topic of discussion for a few years now, but I hadn't taken the dive into the studies to consider myself informed enough to take one side or another. Sure there are plenty of social media posts and claims, but that doesn't mean much to me without data or proof. I'm a numbers person, and I needed time to research and comb through data. Now that I have, I'm convinced, and this is my attempt to consolidate the research and data. When we know better, we do better.
What's wrong with sheets and pods?
As it turns out, quite a bit. Despite the benefits (yep, there are some - see below), these sheets and pods are made with polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA. Many will recognize that anything starting with "poly-" typically means plastic. These companies all claim that the PVA is biodegradable and even edible to a wide array of microorganisms. While that isn't false, the reality is far less ideal. It's sort of like plastic recycling in a sense... while it COULD work, it really DOESN'T. With an estimated 20 Billion pods used in the US every year, we aren't talking small numbers.
It's estimated that our wastewater treatment plants can only eliminate up to 25% of these plastics, which means that at least 75% of it just dissolves and then is washed into our waterways. What's worse, those microorganisms that are supposed to eat up the PVA infrequently exist in wasterwater treatment plants or the environment. (Spoiler Alert - that same study says California has more waste than most other states.) According to another study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, "PVA presence in the environment is a threat to the ecosystem due to the potential mobilization of heavy metals and other hydrophilic contaminants."
While the debate about biodegradability of PVA has been going on for a couple of years, the one key piece that would help provide some clarity ALSO doesn't exist. It was only a few months ago that California adopted a truly monumental requirement to test water for microplastics... and even that won't start until Fall 2023. There are a lot of challenges with this tesing program, given the variations in size and composition of what plastics can be, so don't expect it to be perfect when it rolls out. It'll only test source waters, not tap waters, for example. (But again - when we know better, we do better, so this is an excellent place to start!)
In the face of major campaigns to ask for more regulation and study on these PVA materials, the companies making the claims about biodegradability don't seem to have any website, blog, or social media updates to address their side. Sometimes silence speaks volumes, too.
Why does it matter?
It's frequently said that the average American ingests a credit card worth of plastic every week. Don't believe it? They have been found in human stool, blood, lungs, and breastmilk. I know you don't dice up plastic for your rice pilaf, so where is that coming from? Microplastics, those tiny pieces of plastic that are often invisible to the naked eye, are so ubiquitous they have been found in virtually all table salt, in rain, incorporated into plants who had microplastic-laden water or soil, throughout the ocean, and even protected lands. While all of this plastic comes from many different sources, we cannot ignore that hundreds of thousands of tons of PVA are produced each year... and that impact isn't small if it's dissolved in our water supply. The hunch is that when we test our water for these microplastics, we'll be disgusted at what we find. If it's in our food and our water, there's no way to keep it out of our bodies.
Why did you carry these in the first place, if there was a question about them?
Great question, and one we have discussed a LOT. There are 3 primary benefits to these products.
First, transportation of products generates carbon emissions, and the heavier the product, the more carbon is emitted just by moving it from one place to another. Lightweight options reduce this impact.
Second, these products are often more accessible to people with disabilities. If one is limited in lifting heavy items, a jug of laundry detergent can be an impossible chore.
Third, the products we carried were STILL a cleaner option than buying things like Tide - which the EWG assigns an F RATING. Let's face it, to get to a world where everyone chooses clean products, we have a very long way to go and billions of generational habits to break. That takes time, and we break those habits one step - one product - one household (or person!) - at a time. If we can convert someone off of Tide pods and to a cleaner pod with an A or B rating, that's still better. And if someone is willing to switch to shampoo bars and toothpaste tablets and bulk food but can't give up laundry sheets, isn't that still better than everything in plastic? This argument carried a lot of weight with us for a long time, because it's steeped in a healthy dose of reality. But as we realized that we are a leader in the community to educate about plastics and solid waste, we cannot ignore the compromises this made us make. If we are honest with ourselves about the education that's required and why we started trying to educate about sustainability in the first place, this seems like the right choice to phase these out.
Where do we go from here?
When we started Byrd's Filling Station in 2019, the main goal of the store was to provide refillable options for all of our household necessities. This came about because we realized that it wasn't possible to shop without plastic, and we wanted to help bring more options to the Bay Area. The vision was - and remains - a place for one-stop shopping to maintain convenience. We will continue to balance products, and to do our best in transparency and sourcing.
As we have grown, we continue to research products and bring them into our product assortment when we felt that they were worthwhile additions to our home. As our product lines have grown to the 1,000+ items we currently carry, our philosophy is simple: When we know better, we do better. And we don't have have to be perfect to be better than we were before, and you don't have to be perfect to shop in our store. After all, if everyone made a couple simple changes to reduce single-use plastics, we'd be in a much better position globally!
We still have a good bit of these products on hand, and will sell them while we have them.
Want to take the next step?
A number of groups (primarily Blueland, in conjunction with Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5 Gyres, Beyond Plastics, and MADE SAFE) are leading a petition to call for more study and regulation of PVA and resulting microplastic pollution by the EPA, as well as removing the ingredient from the EPA's Safer Choice list. Consider adding your name to this petition to help. After all, it's the water testing that will provide the next set of information to truly understand the extent of this situation and help determine the next steps.