Q: I've heard that vinyl is terrible for the environment. Is this true?
A: Back in the day, our perceptions of vinyl were simple. You either threw it on a record player or sat on it in your parents' old station wagon. Now the plastic is riddled with all sorts of ecological implications, and vinyl (also known as PVC) is a dirty word in green circles.
According to a report by the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, we buy a hell of a lot of this stuff about 46 pounds a year each. How do we accumulate so much, you ask?
Well, when you think about it, PVC is in everything: pipes, windows, toys, flip flops, garden furniture, flooring, plastic bottles (check the bottom of your packaging for recycling symbol #3), Venetian blinds, umbrellas, fake leather couches, even the puffy 3-D cartoon on your kid's T-shirt. Might as well change the name of the continent to PVC-land and get it over with. The thing is, all that plastic is not benign. Just the additives are super-controversial, like potentially hormone- disruptive and carcinogenic phthalates added to make the hard plastic soft and squishy. And those plasticizers have been found to off-gas from stuff like sex toys and pliable PVC products over the course of their lives. Then there's all the heavy metals like lead and cadmium used to stabilize the plastic. Think lead in vinyl blinds.
Indeed, in the late 90s Greenpeace, after two years of investigation, concluded that vinyl is the absolute worst plastic for the environment. No doubt the building block of PVC, vinyl chloride, is not only a known carcinogen, but creates dangerous dioxins (which accumulate in our tissues and the environment) in the manufacturing process and when incinerated. And after having done covert night samplings of toxic waste in PVC plants, Greenpeace called them dioxin factories. The industry, of course, freaked out, saying vinyl is completely safe, dangers were being exaggerated and it's cleaned up its practices since its dirtier days. In fact, the Vinyl Institute says that on the manufacturing end, the industry only emits 12 grams of dioxins and furans into air, water and land surfaces every year.
Vinyl advocates also argue that dioxins and furans aren't released when vinyl is burned at high temperatures at well-maintained incinerators, only at incinerators burning at lower temperatures with poor controls. (Municipal incinerators are actually the main source of dioxin and furan emissions.)
Enviro groups don't buy any of it, and a couple years back they demanded that the U.S. Green Building Council (known for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program for certifying ecologically sound buildings) take a stand against the vinyl building materials that make up over half of all vinyl purchases. (FYI, many green homes are built with energy-efficient vinyl windows, and some argue the home energy savings they offer are worth the eco price tag.)
The council looked into it for two years and came out with a draft statement. Its conclusions disappointed many: that when you look at the whole life cycle, vinyl isn't much worse than its alternatives. That's when the shit really started to hit the PVC-coated fan.
Charges flew that the council ignored important studies, used poor source material and questionable methodology. Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility protested that most of the scientific lit scanned came from industry sources.
Suffice it to say that the council has been poring over the responses for the last year and has yet to come out with any final yea or nay statements on PVC. Either way, many companies have already started phasing it out. Sport shoe giants like Adidas, Reebok, Puma and Nike, computer gurus like Microsoft and Hewlett Packard and major car manufacturers like Toyota and Honda are all commited to reducing or limiting the plastic. Ikea already outlaws the substance altogether. And municipalities have also been making moves on this front. Just last year, Seattle decided to ditch plans to install 34,000 feet of PVC drainage pipes and used high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipes instead. The move reflects the city's 2002 resolution to reduce or wipe out the purchase of any products with persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs), including PVC. San Fran also has an ordinance mandating all city departments to stay away from PVC plastic whenever possible.
In terms of the alternatives, Greenpeace says any plastic is better than PVC. Vinyl-wearing vegans wanting to stay away from leather at all costs, though, might not be convinced (especially since most leather comes with the heavy ecological cost of raising and slaughtering cows and chemical tanning). Polyurethane is increasingly offered as a somewhat greener alternative for faux leather footware, but it, too, emits toxins during manufacture and incineration. Canvas, especially organic cotton, is best.
If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of vinyl-less building materials head to www. healthybuilding.net/pvc/alternatives.html. And for those building their sex lives, higher-priced toys made of silicone instead of cheapy PVC should bring a smile to both you and the planet.
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