The plastic film around laundry detergent pods is supposed to be biodegradable. But typical wastewater-treatment plants don’t offer the optimal conditions for it to actually work; and the material, called polyvinyl alcohol, often ends up polluting the environment, according to a recent study. (Along the way, the plastic can suck up antibiotics or heavy metals and get into the food chain.) Standard liquid laundry-detergent jugs often aren’t recycled, and are heavy and require a lot of energy to ship. So, a handful of laundry product companies are moving to a different form factor: Detergent in dissolvable sheets.
“Our hope is that we can eliminate our liquid laundry detergent,” says Leif Frey, cofounder and head of direction at Frey, a laundry startup and certified B Corp that just launched a new detergent in dissolvable strips. (The product is now on Kickstarter, but the company has already started manufacturing and plans to begin shipping shortly after Black Friday.) “When we first started out as a small brand, we were a concentrated detergent with just a greener formulation,” he says. “Stage two of the brand was that we offer a much more concentrated formulation, but still in plastic. Our more recent movement was same product but now in post consumer-recycled plastic. Then we’ve been working on this product for the last year or so. The goal is that it catches on enough where we push everybody into this product and kind of phase out the liquid entirely.”
Typical liquid detergent has a couple of challenges: both the amount of plastic that’s used for the packaging, and the amount of water in the product, making it heavier and increasing the carbon emissions of moving it through the supply chain. Some detergents are as much as 80% water. “You’re now shipping a very heavy liquid all around the world when it’s completely unnecessary to be doing so,” he says. “Your washing machine is right there—just let your machine add water instead of shipping water.” Making laundry detergent more concentrated helps. But making a detergent in sheet form eliminates water, and plastic, completely.
Frey’s sheets are made from the same naturally derived ingredients it uses in its other detergents, with the addition of starch and proteins that help hold it together until it dissolves completely in the washing machine. It’s packaged in a small cardboard box, with a compostable plastic bag to protect the product. Some other brands, like Grove, also sell laundry sheets. Others, like Blueland, sell detergent in the form of powdered tabs that can be dropped into the machine.
It may take longer for bigger brands to move in this direction, Frey says, especially because they profit from the fact that consumers often overdose liquid detergent and then end up having to buy more. (Some brands also recommend using as many as three laundry pods in a load, even though one should do the job.) But he’s hoping that the whole industry can move in this direction. “We obviously want to be kind of at the forefront of this movement,” he says. “But at the end of the day, the end goal is the same. We would prefer the industry to just be far more sustainable.”