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Is Polyvinyl Alcohol Bad for the Environment?

Paper is a product we use almost daily at offices, schools, or at home. But do you know that papermaking uses polyvinyl alcohol? What is this? Is polyvinyl alcohol bad for the environment?

What is polyvinyl alcohol?

It is a water-soluble synthetic polymer that can be stung into fibers, film, or particles. It dissolves in water that way it is used mostly to make paper products.

Polyvinyl alcohol is obtained from the polymerization of polyvinyl acetate and other chemicals. It is technically not made with only vinyl acetate because the reaction results in a mixture of monomers.

What is a water-soluble synthetic polymer?

Is Polyvinyl Alcohol Bad for the Environment?

It is known that synthetic polymers are made from various kinds of chemicals. There are liquid-soluble or solid-type, but water-soluble polymers are the type preferred by papermakers because it is easier to work with. It can be also made into powder, flake, or fiber form. The water-soluble polymer is also commonly used for food packaging products.

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What are the uses of polyvinyl alcohol?

When dissolved in water, it becomes a type of colloidal solution with several industrial applications including paper coatings and adhesives. Manufacturers use polyvinyl alcohol for water-soluble film production, textile printing, PVA plastic for food packaging, or disposable cups.

Other uses of polyvinyl alcohol include wood adhesives, textile coatings for dyeing or finishing textiles. It is also used as emulsifiers, thickeners, and clarifying agents in food production. Additionally, it can be incorporated into photocopier toner during the electrodeposition process.

It is also used for making medical devices like blood bags.

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Is polyvinyl alcohol toxic to humans?

It is not toxic.

However, some reports show that it can cause irritation of the skin and mucous membranes along with allergic reactions like hives, dermatitis, or severe anaphylactic reactions.

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Is polyvinyl alcohol toxic to wildlife?

It is not toxic.

A recent report shows that it can make small changes in the level of cholesterol without altering other blood chemical components like amino acids, triglycerides, phospholipids, glucose, and urea nitrogen. Additionally, no change was observed in hematology or kidney functions.

According to recent reports, polyvinyl alcohol is not toxic to bees and birds. However, it is a concern that water pollutants can convert polyvinyl alcohol into phthalates which are potentially harmful.

The European Union has banned the use of polyvinyl alcohol in balloons due to its ability to break down into phthalates.

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Is polyvinyl alcohol biodegradable?

It is not biodegradable.

This was verified when researchers experimented on photo-degraded polyvinyl alcohol in wastewater treatment plants. It is not hydrolyzed during the composting process; therefore, it does not offer any nutritional value to microorganisms.

When it ends up in landfills, it does not break down into carbon dioxide or water that way it remains as landfill leachates.

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Is polyvinyl alcohol recyclable?

It is recyclable.

However, according to further research, it cannot be recycled with materials rich in cellulose content because it does not break down during the pulping process.

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Recycling polyvinyl alcohol products

Since it is not biodegradable in nature, recycling polyvinyl alcohol plastic is difficult. Recyclers use a chemical recycling method using a process called depolymerization. This is a process in which a solution of concentrated sulfuric acid is applied to the plastic.

As the acid breaks down polyvinyl alcohol, it releases pure acetate. With this process, the energy requirements are about 25% that of a petroleum-based process.

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How does polyvinyl alcohol affect the environment?

Washing Machine With Dirty Clothes

It is not toxic to people or animals, but it can affect the environment.

Polyvinyl alcohol degraded by various microorganisms under anaerobic conditions results in the formation of carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia.

According to studies, polyvinyl alcohol does not have a negative effect on soil microorganisms which are helpful to protect soils from further degradation.

However, polyvinyl alcohol does not break down in soil like other plastics. It is broken down in the water by microorganisms to produce chemicals that can be harmful to aquatic organisms.

Additionally, when plastic decomposes it releases toxic chemicals into the surrounding environment that may harm plants and animals, especially in the aquatic ecology.

It is not toxic to people, but it can negatively affect water quality by releasing toxic chemicals into the aquatic ecology. Additionally, microorganisms that break down polyvinyl alcohol release greenhouse gases like ammonia and methane which contribute to climate change.

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When polyvinyl alcohol reaches waterways

During textile coatings, they go through a washing machine using detergent pods and cold water to remove the remaining PVA residue, since PVA is water-soluble it can go to waterways through drainages.

It can potentially decrease oxygen levels while increasing algae growth. Algae growth releases more toxins into the water that may affect people and animals that depend on them for their livelihood.

Because of its chemical properties, polyvinyl alcohol is not biodegradable in nature; therefore, when it ends up in landfills, it does not break down into carbon dioxide and water.

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PVA in Wastewater Treatment Facilities

PVA can be a water-soluble particle having hydrophilic or water-loving properties. In the United States, certain bacteria and microorganisms required for PVA breakdown aren’t always available in typical WWTP areas.

If the PVA re-eluting takes place, it will undoubtedly be utilized as a secondary treatment. Residual PVA may accumulate and decompose in the pond over time.

If it enters water systems while still coated, the PVA fibers remain intact because its hydrophobic properties prevent them from leaching out. It is removed before entering lakes and other river systems by using a fine filter designed to trap any fibers that may have been released from the clothing fiber during washing.

The majority of PVA fibers will stay in the wastewater treatment facility and never get out into natural bodies of water.

When it reaches a wastewater treatment facility, because of its hydrophobic properties, it is not able to be broken down by microorganisms so they are removed from the water using a fine filter designed to trap any fibers that may have been released from the clothing fiber during washing.

Plastic fibers are removed before it reaches lakes and other river systems by using a fine filter designed to trap any fibers that may have been released from the clothing fiber during washing.

An important note: When PVA is broken down in the water, its chemicals can be harmful to aquatic organisms.

During the many cycles of laundering, water treatment facility workers are at risk of exposure to PVA fibers.

Accordingly, it is important for wastewater treatment operators who have come in contact with PVA-based coatings to wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) during their workday.

The majority of this type of PPE is made of impermeable materials that will prevent contact with the PVA fibers while still allowing for normal operation and removing any released fibers from clothing.

If workers use their own protective equipment and it is not properly maintained, they put themselves at risk of exposure to PVA.

It should be mentioned that wastewater treatment facility operators should monitor wash water to detect any chemicals that may be released from the PVA during laundering.

If possible, mills should develop recovery or recycling methods for these PVA-based coatings so they don’t end up at wastewater treatment facilities where they pose a hazard to workers and aquatic organisms.

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What is climate change?

Plastic in Water

Climate change is a phenomenon in which the weather and temperature in one area or throughout the world become unusually warm for an extended period of time. This can cause effects like melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and disappearing rainforests.

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Effects on climate change

It releases greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Due to its effect on climate change, it is listed as a dangerous substance according to the European Union. Because of this listing, researchers and manufacturers are looking for alternatives to polyvinyl alcohol plastic due to its negative effects on the environment.

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Pros of polyvinyl products

  • They are resistant to biodegradation and hydrolysis in the environment
  • They do not break down in soil like other plastics.
  • They release carbon dioxide, which ultimately contributes to climate change. That’s why they pose environmental costs.

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Cons of polyvinyl alcohol products

  • They don’t decompose in the environment.
  • It is said to have a negative effect on aquatic life because of its hydrolysis process. Additionally, it contributes to climate change by releasing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane when degraded by microorganisms.
  • Has low recyclability.
  • It contributes to pollution because of its low biodegradability.
  • water-soluble, can easily pollute waterways.

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What are good alternative products?

There are various alternatives to plastic made from polyvinyl alcohol. These include bioplastics, plant-based plastics, and biodegradable plastics.

There are some bioplastics that can be sourced from renewable biomass such as starch, cellulose, and proteins.

Since these plastics come from renewable sources, they are more sustainable than polyvinyl alcohol. According to studies, “Bioplastics offer an environmental advantage over conventional plastics because biomass feedstocks are carbon-neutral, and manufacturing uses about half the energy of petrochemical processes.”

Additionally, plant-based plastics are made from plant materials such as sugar cane, cornstarch, and soybean. In comparison to polyvinyl alcohol plastic, it is less durable but more environmentally friendly.   

Biopellets are another alternative that is made from biodegradable plastics. These pellets are made from corn, sugarcane, and other biomass.

These plastics are more readily available than polyvinyl alcohol plastic because the entire biomass material can be used to make plastic.

Since this is made of natural materials from plants, it doesn’t produce any greenhouse gases once degraded by microorganisms.

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Conclusion

The use of PVA in most products is harmful to the environment due to PVA plastic pollution which can affect waterways through textile coatings when this coating process is finished they go through a washing machine to wash out the remaining vinyl alcohol residue.

Since PVA is water-soluble it goes down to drains and straight to our waterways and affects aquatic life.

Secondly, once these PVA plastic bags end up in landfills they don’t biodegrade, microorganisms that break PVA release greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change.

In conclusion recycling, PVA, and the reduction of its use by using other eco-friendly materials to reduce environmental costs.

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