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Daily Footprint, #27 – Laundry Detergent, Part 1: Revenge of the Pods

Summary: Laundry detergent is as effective as it needs to be and yet is constantly being reinvented for marketing purposes. Any further improvements in detergent should be made on the fronts of sustainability and social impact. Instead, the major detergent makers focus on minor tweaks to improve aesthetics or convenience, addressing first-world problems rather than the real-world problems that they should be tackling.

Are laundry detergent pods needed?

Take a look at the bestselling laundry detergents on sites like Amazon and you’ll see products like Tide Pods at the top of the list (or Ariel Pods in Europe, also made by P&G). The pod was developed to avoid the need to measure out detergent – after all, who has time to scoop (or pour) something these days?! The pods are sold in a colorful plastic box and the detergents inside the pod are dyed blue and orange, just to make sure you know you’re getting a high-tech product. As I said: first-world problems. As I’ve discussed before, in a post on convenience food, companies often thrive by providing conveniences that, over time, actually rob us of skills to do things for ourselves. Many don’t have basic cooking skills these days – perhaps in the future we’ll have lost the ability to measure things! (Or, more likely, it will gradually be perceived to be a backwards practice that’s only for Luddites.)

In many cases, the “conveniences” or “advances” in fact offer no advantage at all; for another example, see my post on the amusing story of Gillette’s battery-powered disposable razor (which they coincidentally developed after merging with Duracell!). Not only that, but imagine the resources that go into these products. P&G are calling the pods their greatest Tide development in three decades – honestly, would they not be better off applying themselves to something more helpful to the world at large? Amid the climate change, extinctions, destruction of rainforests, rampant pollution, and a plastic-rich ocean, are pods really worth spending our time, money, and effort on? Sure, the company exists to make a profit but we are all part of the same collective and it’s up to you to decide whether to support them or not.

What are laundry detergent pods made of?

Let’s take a look at a few aspects of the pod innovation and see how much society has benefited from it.

The pod coating is made from a water-soluble polymer polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) that’s generally considered to be safe. But spend two minutes on Wikipedia and you’ll learn that PVA is actually made from vinyl acetate. Two more minutes online and you can find the MSDS (safety data) for vinyl acetate:

OK, so the coating on the pod is considered safe but it’s made from a pretty toxic monomer. You hope that none of it ends up in wastewater, but finding out whether this is likely will take considerably longer than two minutes. So, the best option is to do a risk versus reward analysis. The risk is that the monomer harms aquatic lifeforms and potentially causes cancer. The reward is that you don’t have to measure detergent when you do laundry. Perhaps the risk would be worth it if the reward was a material that enabled a new type of medical implant. But in the case of pods, the reward is not high enough for my liking – I can manage to scoop or pour my own detergent, thank you very much!

Detergent pods: change for change’s sake

I’m not saying that change is bad – we need to change a lot of things – but when we introduce something new into our world we have to be careful of unexpected consequences. Especially if we rely too much on corporations to assure us on safety. In the case of Tide Pods (and the other brands that rushed to mimic them) one consequence was that thousands of kids (and some seniors with dementia) were poisoned. OK, perhaps that’s not that unexpected when you consider the picture on the left below…

Left: Spot the pods among the sweeties; Right: data on number of pod-related poisonings (sources: Consumer Reports and The Consumerist)

It became obvious early on that poisoning from accidental eating of the pods was going to be a big problem. P&G had to respond by changing the packaging, adding a bitter-tasting additive to the detergent, and making the outer film harder to bite through.

All of these changes have an impact. All the new R&D, safety testing, package redesign, etc., carries a large carbon and material footprint. And for what? Perfectly good detergents already exist. And this is not an isolated case – see my post on microbeads for more on the perils and costs of unnecessary new developments.

I’m not going to get into a broader evaluation of P&G (or Unilever, who also makes pods) in this post. You may find it interesting that both companies (among others, including Gillette) were found guilty in 2014 of price fixing.

Commercial directors and other sales officials from the companies involved met “regularly and in secret” to co-ordinate price hikes. – The Guardian.

Regardless of the broader company operations, pods in general represent a step backwards in sustainability and should get a low Green Stars rating, in my opinion.

As I said at the beginning, we should be supporting companies that work to improve the social and environmental impact of their products, and ignore the rest. In the next post, I’ll take a look at a more sustainable laundry detergent that I’ve reviewed, and also dig a bit deeper into researching ingredients.

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