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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? Let’s evaluate the pros and cons of this substance.

What is polyvinyl alcohol?

Cylinder flask with chemical

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 papermakers prefer water-soluble polymers because they are easier to work with. It can also be 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?

Female scientist pipetting colored chemicals into a tube.
Julia Koblitz / Unsplash

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

Other uses of polyvinyl alcohol include wood adhesives and textile coatings for dyeing or finishing textiles. It is also used as an emulsifier, thickener, and clarifying agent 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.

See Related: Is Cardboardbiodegradable?

Is polyvinyl alcohol toxic to humans?

Lab technician analyzing chemicals
ME Image / Adobe Stock

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?

Cute puppy dogs running

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 potentially harmful phthalates.

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?

Trash bins for compost, waste, and recycle
Nareeta Martin / Unsplash

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?

Recycle Sign

It is recyclable. However, further research shows that it cannot be recycled with materials rich in cellulose because it does not break down during the pulping process.

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Recycling polyvinyl alcohol products

Corn Ethanol and other chemicals
ckstockphoto / Pixabay

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 forms carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia.

According to studies, polyvinyl alcohol does not hurt soil microorganisms, which helps protect soils from further degradation. However, polyvinyl alcohol does not break down in soil like other plastics. Microorganisms break it down in the water to produce chemicals that can harm aquatic organisms.

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

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, contributing to climate change.

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When polyvinyl alcohol reaches waterways

Lake Surrounded with Conifer Trees

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.

See Related: What is Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA)? Applications & Environmental Impact

PVA in Wastewater Treatment Facilities

Polyvinyl alcohol premium photo for is polyvinyl alcohol bad for the environment

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

If the PVA re-eluting occurs, 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, it cannot be broken down by microorganisms because of its hydrophobic properties. 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 reach 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 harm aquatic organisms.During the many laundering cycles, 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 impervious 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 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 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 that pose a hazard to workers and aquatic organisms.

See Related: What is Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA)? Applications & Environmental Impact

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 environmental effects.

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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 hurt 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?

Turtle swimming surrounded with plastic pollution
Richard Carey / Adobe Stock

There are various alternatives to plastic made from polyvinyl alcohol. These include bioplastics, plant-based plastics, and biodegradable plastics. Some bioplastics 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. Compared 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 plant materials, it doesn’t produce any greenhouse gases once degraded by microorganisms.

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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 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.


Is polyvinyl alcohol hazardous?

Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) is a synthetic polymer that is commonly used in a variety of applications such as adhesives, coatings, and films. PVA is generally considered to be non-toxic and safe for use. However, exposure to high concentrations of PVA dust or fumes may cause irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat. Therefore, it is important to follow proper safety precautions when handling PVA to minimize any potential hazards.

Is polyvinyl alcohol safe for skin?

Polyvinyl alcohol is a synthetic polymer that is commonly used in skincare and cosmetic products. It is generally considered safe for use on the skin, as it is non-toxic and non-irritating. However, some individuals may experience allergic reactions or skin irritation when using products containing polyvinyl alcohol, so it is important to patch test new products before use and discontinue use if any adverse reactions occur.

Is polyvinyl alcohol safe to eat?

Polyvinyl alcohol is a synthetic polymer that is commonly used in a variety of industries, including food and pharmaceuticals. While it is not toxic and generally considered safe for use in these applications, it is not intended for consumption as a food ingredient. Ingesting polyvinyl alcohol can cause gastrointestinal issues and is not recommended for human consumption.

Is polyvinyl alcohol good for you?

Polyvinyl alcohol is a synthetic polymer that is commonly used as a thickener, adhesive, and emulsifier in a variety of products, including personal care items, cleaning products, and food. While it is generally considered safe for use in these applications, it is not considered to have any significant health benefits and is not typically consumed or used for medicinal purposes. Therefore, it can be concluded that polyvinyl alcohol is not “good for you” in the sense that it is not a nutrient or medicine that promotes health.

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