February 2014

Volume 23, Number 2

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Article Contents

The PVC Debate: A Fresh Look

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By Brent Ehrlich

PVC is banned by some green building programs and simply reviled by some groups. How did we get here, and has anything changed since vinyl became the enemy?

 

The Chlorine Tree

ChlorineTree_1200.jpg

This illustration depicts the uses of chlorine in both end-products and as an intermediary in the production of others materials.

Source: Euro Chlor

“Poison Plastic,” “Toxic Plastic,” or “Pandora’s Poison”: There is no shortage of unsavory monikers used to describe polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and the vinyl products made from it.

Few materials have been vilified as much as PVC, which has come under fire by the green building community over the last twenty years for containing hazardous materials and releasing toxic chemicals during manufacture, use, and disposal. All the while, the PVC industry, buoyed by incredible demand for the material, argues that complaints are exaggerated and emphasizes that it is made from “common salt”—implying that it is harmless.

Let’s take a look at the history of PVC in the building industry, the realities of PVC production in 2014, and how this decades-long debate has informed our view of building products in general.

PVC: Still Popular

PVC is an extremely versatile plastic resin. It is found in pipe, wire insulation, flooring, window frames, wallcoverings, carpet backing, and a host of consumer products. It can be formulated to be rigid or flexible, clear or opaque, and finished products made from PVC are lightweight, inexpensive, durable, and UV-, chemical-, and corrosion-resistant. This versatility has helped make PVC the third most widely used plastic in the world behind polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP).

A brief history

PVC was first synthesized in its raw form in 1835, but it wasn’t until the creation of flexible, or plasticized, versions in the late 1920s that PVC was made into functional products. It was used as a rubber substitute in World War II and in building and consumer goods after the war.

Worldwide, about three million tons of PVC were produced in 1965. And “approximately 7.5 million tons were produced in the U.S. alone in 2012, with more than 70% of that used in the building and housing industries,” according to Allen Blakey, vice president of industry and government affairs at the Vinyl Institute.

Through the 1960s, PVC production—like many industrial processes—was not considered particularly hazardous. Vinyl chloride, the “monomer” known as VCM and the primary ingredient of PVC, was even used as an aerosol propellant in hairspray. All this changed in the 1970s, when exposure to VCM was linked to the liver cancer angiosarcoma in workers in PVC plants. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration soon banned its use in consumer goods, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations limited worker exposure, which forced the PVC industry to redesign its production process to reduce emissions.

While those moves reined PVC in a bit, its battles were only beginning. In the early 1990s, Greenpeace launched a campaign cataloguing the negative environmental impacts of halogens and chlorine-based industries, focusing first on pulp and paper processing and then on PVC (EBN’s oft-cited 1994 article “Should We Phase Out PVC?” was part of that era). According to Bill Walsh, executive director of the Healthy Building Network, “The bond between the halogens and organic matter are so strong, the chemicals provide outstanding performance in their targeted use, but then they are almost impossible to deal with effectively as emissions or waste. PVC comes into play because it is by far the single largest ‘sink’ for chlorine, or any halogen.”  

PVC became the most scrutinized building material—even more so in the 2000s when, at the urging of its membership, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) considered a credit for its LEED rating systems that would have discouraged PVC use. USGBC reported in 2007 that other materials can be worse than PVC (depending on the application) and that an across-the-board ban could be counterproductive; but that didn’t put an end to concerns, particularly in regard to other ingredients in PVC products, such as heavy-metal stabilizers and phthalate plasticizers. PVC is now restricted in hospitals run by Kaiser Permanente, and green building programs such as Cradle to Cradle and the Living Building Challenge have banned it via red lists.

childrens-ward.jpg

Vinyl, which is inexpensive, durable, and easy to sanitize, was used on the flooring, wallcovering, and ceiling mural of this children’s hospital wing. Other hospitals, most notably those owned by Kaiser Permanente, have banned PVC use due to concerns over phthalate plasticizers and life-cycle impacts.

Photo: The Vinyl Institute

Amanda Sturgeon, vice president of the International Living Future Institute and head of the Living Building Challenge, summed up her organization’s policy: “When we put PVC on the Red List in 2009, we took the precautionary approach because we had concerns about phthalates and chlorine, the limited ability to recycle it, and health of the environment and workers.” (See “The Precautionary Principle” for more on that approach.)

“Myths” and “Facts”: PVC’s Life Cycle

Most plastics are made from carbon and hydrogen—almost always from fossil fuels—with other elements added that provide specific performance characteristics and help determine the plastic’s overall environmental impact: polyesters such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) contain oxygen, for instance, while nylon contains nitrogen. What makes PVC special—and a target of criticism—is that it is made with chlorine.

PVC’s life cycle begins with the production of chlorine through electrolysis at chlor-alkali plants. (A mercury-cell process is also sometimes used overseas. More on this later.) Here, an electric current is run through a solution made from rock salt (sodium chloride), separating out the chlorine from the sodium. Sodium hydroxide (also known as lye), chlorine, and hydrogen are collected for use by various industries.

The chlorine is mixed with ethylene, typically from natural gas refining, in a tightly controlled process to form ethylene dichloride (EDC), which is converted to the gas vinyl chloride (VCM). VCM is typically combined with water and additives that cause the monomers to combine and form the polymer PVC; the VCM-to-PVC manufacturing can happen at standalone facilities that control the entire process, but often VCM manufacturers such as Dow Chemical sell it to individual PVC manufacturers. A final step in making PVC a useful “vinyl” product is to combine the resin with fillers, stabilizers, plasticizers, and other additives, depending on the application.

The impact of chlorine

Chlorine is found in seawater, table salt, and as part of many compounds formed by plants and animals. Fungi that decompose wood can release chloromethane, for example. According to the American Chemistry Council, half of all chemicals manufactured require chlorine, where it is used as a main ingredient or as an intermediary for other chemical reactions. Chlorine is also used in many of the products and services we rely on daily, including water treatment; pharmaceutical, pesticide, and paper production; mining; and other industries, including the manufacture of many other plastics. But PVC is about 57% chlorine by weight; its production accounts for 35%-40% of the chlorine used in the U.S., and it is the only plastic that uses chlorine as a primary building block.

Greenpeace started working against PVC because it is the “low- hanging fruit” for reducing overall chlorine consumption, according to Walsh, and because, among many reasons, PVC can often be replaced with less harmful, non-chlorinated options.

Whether PVC is the right target is a point of contention in the PVC wars. Though PVC’s use of chlorine is significant, chlorine is used extensively in compounds that are intermediaries in the production of other building materials: polyurethane uses approximately 20% of the nation’s chlorine; silicon and fluoropolymers 6%; and epoxies 4%. Even titanium dioxide, which is valued for its white pigment in many consumer and building products, including the majority of paints, uses chlorine as a critical processing chemical.

What’s wrong with chlorine, anyway?

Chlorine, along with other halogens (namely bromine and fluorine), is extremely reactive and can combine with other compounds to form persistent, bioaccumulative toxic chemicals (PBTs). Some of these include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs), and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs, or dioxins)—all of which are listed by the Stockholm Convention as persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. The most toxic dioxin is 2,3,7,8 tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), which is listed as a Type I carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and has been implicated in a long list of other non-cancerous health issues, including endocrine disruption, compromised immune systems, and reproductive problems. Potentially hazardous doses of dioxin are small—measured in nanograms—and these substances build up in the environment and in human and animal tissue, so they are of particular concern.

Because chlorine compounds are common in the environment, dioxins and “dioxin-like” byproducts can be formed when almost any material is burned, especially at temperatures between 752°F (400°C) and 1,292°F (700°C); so any incomplete combustion, even of “natural” materials (from logs and paper to charcoal to cigarettes), produces dioxins. Chlorinated materials like PVC, chlorosulfonated polyethylene rubber, and chloroprene rubber (Neoprene) contain particularly large amounts of chlorine, however, so they produce more dioxin when burned at the wrong temperatures.

PVC and dioxins: Not so fast

Dioxins can also form during the PVC manufacturing process as EDC is converted to VCM. In 1993, Greenpeace estimated dioxin emissions from VCM production to be 5–10 grams per 100,000 metric tons, based on monitoring of four European facilities. Using the same monitoring equipment, however, the European vinyl industry produced data for these same facilities showing much lower numbers. The differences were attributed to Greenpeace’s adjustments of the data to account for other estimated emissions, such as from waste products and other releases not measured by the monitoring equipment. These data adjustments, the limited sample size, and differences in PVC manufacturing facilities made it hard to extrapolate results to the U.S.

Decrease in Dioxin Emissions

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This Vinyl Institute graph shows cradle-to-cradle dioxin emissions from chlorine-vinyl manufacturing. It is based on EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory data, which is reported by manufacturers and does not include all vinyl production or account for accidental releases or spills.

Source: The Vinyl Institute

Data from a 2013 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) draft document, which is still in review phase and out for comments, estimates releases of dioxin into the air from standalone PVC facilities to be 0.62 g/100,000 metric ton. These numbers are consistent with the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) emissions data from PVC manufacturing facilities, which also show a 79% drop in air and water dioxin levels from 2000 to 2012, based on cradle-to-resin production.

The Vinyl Institute points out that PVC production also increased significantly during this time, suggesting that PVC manufacturing is not as much of a source of dioxin as is often implied. On the other hand, other potential dioxin releases into the environment, such as from accidental leaks, landfill fires, or hazardous waste sent to incinerators, are not included in the data, so overall emissions are likely to be higher. The different ways of estimating these emissions are at the core of the debate about whether the PVC industry is underestimating emissions, or, from the industry’s perspective, whether anti-vinyl dioxin claims are accurate.

Is PVC the right target in reducing dioxins?

“Whenever critics have talked about dioxin, they have almost always pointed toward PVC but not to any of the other sources,” said the Vinyl Institute’s Blakey, and he has a point—sort of. According to the 2013 EPA draft document, the three largest emitters of dioxin are forest fires, “backyard barrel” burning, and medical waste incineration. PVC manufacturing is not in the top five. Good news for vinyl, right? Not so fast: though PVC manufacturing is not at the top of the list, the PVC contained in plastic waste is a significant chlorine source from backyard burning and from medical waste incineration and, hence, another way that PVC contributes to dioxin emissions.

That makes it worthwhile to target PVC, according to Mike Schade, former markets campaign coordinator at the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ recently shuttered this program). “If you look at the EPA dioxin inventory, you’ll see that waste sources are the major source of dioxin in the U.S.,” he said. “PVC is the primary chlorine donor to those sources, and thereby a major and preventable source of dioxin.” Schade also points out that if you look at individual facilities instead of industry sectors (or broad phenomena like forest fires), some of the top individual industry sources of dioxin come from manufacturers that make chlorine-based products that include VCM.

As with chlorine consumption, PVC is not the only dioxin culprit. Polyurethane, which is specified as a PVC replacement in carpet backing, is also a major source of dioxin from chlorine-based intermediary chemicals used in the manufacture of isocyanates, according to Jim Vallette, senior researcher with the Healthy Building Network. Pound per pound, his research indicates, they are nearly equal during the manufacturing phase, though, again, PVC can also create dioxins if incinerated improperly, whereas polyurethane does not contain chlorine as a primary ingredient, so emissions from incineration would be much lower. Even so, “the only thing that is keeping polyurethane from releasing as much dioxin as PVC is scale of production,” Vallette told EBN. Epoxies used in a number of building applications also use chlorine-based intermediaries and are also a major dioxin emitter—not to mention their use of bisphenol-A, an endocrine disruptor, as a feedstock.

Mercury then and now

Mercury emissions from mercury-cell chlor-alkali facilities are often cited as a reason not to use PVC. In 1992, 14% of U.S. chlorine production came from these facilities, but there are only two mercury-cell chlor-alkali plants still operating in the U.S., and neither are used for PVC, according to the Vinyl Institute. The industry claims this is another myth perpetuated against vinyl. But if we look at mercury contamination as a global problem, the Vinyl Institute’s assertions may provide cold comfort.

There are still 75 of these facilities in use throughout the world, according to the UN’s Global Inventory of Mercury Cell Chlor-Alkali Facilities, and that figure doesn’t include China, one of the world’s largest PVC producers. To make matters worse, China does not have a large natural gas supply, and according to the International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant (ICMGP), “Sixty-three percent of China’s PVC production comes from a process that uses calcium carbide as feedstock. This process absorbs 7,000 tonnes of mercury catalyst, 770 tonnes of mercuric chloride and 570 tonnes of straight mercury each year.” This production process makes it “the largest mercury consumer not just in China, but the world,” according to the ICMGP. So while projects using U.S.-made PVC products may not be contributing to mercury pollutions, those specifying PVC abroad should vet materials carefully.

Releases of vinyl chloride still a problem

VCM was identified as a liver carcinogen in the 1970s (its precursor EDC is also a probable carcinogen), and it has since been linked to blood, lung, and brain tumors as well as other health problems. VCM is a volatile, explosive gas with an OSHA exposure limit of 1 ppm (VCM) averaged over eight hours, the same limit as benzene. VCM can be released into the environment from PVC manufacturing facilities, accidental releases such as spills or equipment malfunctions, and as the result of chlorinated solvents and other chemicals breaking down in the environment. At the U.S. Marine Corps Base at Camp Lejeune, for instance, VCM was detected as part of the base’s extensive groundwater contamination. In this case, the breakdown of the dry cleaning fluid trichloroethylene and other solvents led to the VCM contamination, which was not caused by PVC. VCM leaching from landfills may come from similar contamination.

Decrease in Vinyl Chloride Emissions

Figure%202%20color%20800px.jpg

This Vinyl Institute graph shows cradle-to-cradle vinyl chloride emissions from PVC manufacturing from 1987­ to 2011. It is based on EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory data, which is reported by manufacturers and does not include all vinyl production or account for accidental releases or spills.

Source: The Vinyl Institute

PVC resin undergoes a steam process that removes residual VCM, and additional VCM is driven off during product manufacturing, leaving very little in finished products. Potential leaching of VCM from PVC pipe that comes into contact with drinking water has still been of particular concern. In a 2011 study published in Water Research, VCM leaching from PVC pipe was below EPA’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 2.0 micrograms per liter, but some samples exceeded the MCL-Goal of 0 micrograms. These readings varied depending on the source and age of the PVC, with products from Japan and the U.S. produced after 1977 showing less leaching. Water sanitized by chlorination appears to be a factor in formation of VCM in these products, however, as VCM was even produced in copper pipe.

The Vinyl Institute’s Blakey stated that “when production went from a small-batch, open-vat process to a closed loop, it virtually eliminated VCM [exposure] in workers.” His organization points to EPA Toxics Release Inventory data that shows VCM emissions since 1987 have declined by 75% as PVC production increased by 76%.

But not everyone is convinced by this data.

Wilma Subra, environmental chemist and president of the environmental consulting firm Subra Company, has lived and worked near Louisiana’s petrochemical industry her entire life. She acknowledged that establishing the EPA Toxics Release Inventory helped reduce emissions and said, “The production process is getting cleaner, especially for the workers,” but added, “they [the PVC industries] are not looking at the impact that is happening outside their fence line.”

Subra, who won a MacArthur Award for her work assisting low-income individuals and communities affected by industrial pollution (petrochemical facilities are typically located in low-income neighborhoods) said that accidents, off-site discharges, and emissions not tracked by the Toxics Release Inventory are the real problem. “They have a huge number of accidental releases,” she said, such as the 180,000 pounds of VCM released from a train derailment in Paulsboro, New Jersey, in 2012 or the more recent December 2013 explosion and fire at the PVC Axiall Corp’s manufacturing facility in Westlake, Louisiana. EPA fined Axiall for VCM spills totaling more than 300 pounds in 2012–2013 alone, according to news station KATC. “I’ve been tracking this since the late ’70s,” Subra said, “and when you look at the number of releases, it is still very, very high.”

She says tighter regulation and enforcement would help but that inspections are not as frequent as they need to be, partially due to the massive size, number, and complexity of facilities. Though all industries, including those that make other plastics, have accidents, the scale of production and the toxicity of VCM make releases particularly problematic.

Lead and other stabilizers

Stabilizers are added to all PVC to protect the resin from degrading while being formed into products, and to protect them from light and heat during use. Rigid PVC requires more effective stabilizing because of heat formed during extrusion.

Designers and architects have been especially concerned about exposure to lead and other heavy-metal stabilizers, such as cadmium, from interior products, but cadmium and lead are rarely used in the U.S. Though cadmium can be found in some colorants in plastic, lead now makes up less than 1% of the U.S. stabilizer market; today, it is found in wire insulation where added durability is required.

Calcium-zinc, barium-zinc, and organotin stabilizers have replaced cadmium and lead, and in the U.S., organotins—compounds made up of tin and hydrocarbons—are used in the majority of pipe and rigid PVC. There are many different organotins with different toxicities; some are banned in Europe, while others are approved by the FDA for food applications. Tributyltin is sometimes erroneously linked to PVC but is a biocide that is not used in PVC production. All organotins are on Living Building Challenge and Perkins+Will red lists. The PVC industry has responded to environmental concerns by offering less toxic calcium-based and organic stabilizers.

 

It’s not the PVC: It’s the plasticizers

PVC is available in a rigid, unplasticized form (uPVC) used in pipe and window frames, but flexible PVC found in wallcoverings, flooring, and carpet backing contains plasticizers. Plasticizers essentially provide a lubricant between PVC molecules, and because they do not form a strong chemical bond with the resin, they can easily leach out, especially in contact areas such as flooring and wallcoverings—which can contain more than 50% plasticizer.

Phthalates are the most common plasticizers, and those with three to six carbon atoms (low-molecular-weight phthalates) are reproductive toxicants and have been associated with asthma, obesity, and other health problems. They are listed as “substances of very high concern” by REACH (the EU’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals program) and are banned in Europe but not in the U.S. The most common of these, DEHP (di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate) is still in use in the U.S. in a wide range of products, including medical equipment.

Susan Walter, senior project architect at Wilmot Sanz Architecture + Planning, learned about phthalates in her work in healthcare. Studies showing DEHP leaching from tubing and IV bags used in hospitals were an epiphany for her. “For me, eliminating PVC from hospitals did not start with the PVC, but with DEHP.”

Most U.S. manufacturers have moved to phthalates such as diisononyl phthalate (DiNP), said Blakey, but the full health impacts of these replacements are not clear. In December 2013, California added DiNP to its Proposition 65 list of cancer-causing agents, and the entire class of phthalate chemicals has been banned in children’s toys in Europe and in many green building programs worldwide.

InPro.jpg

InPro’s G2 wall protection panels, corner guards, and handrails are made from G2 BioBlend bio-based PETG. They offer the same performance as vinyl with approximately a 10% price premium.

Photo: InPro

Non-phthalate plasticizers have been developed to fill the niche and are being used by InPro in its flexible wall and corner guards and by Tarkett in select PVC flooring. Upofloor uses a castor oil-based plasticizer in its vinyl flooring products but also offers PVC-free, phthalate-free resilient flooring.

End-of-life concerns

One of PVC’s biggest problems is what we do with it at the end of its service life.

PVC can be placed in a landfill (many landfill liners are made from flexible PVC), and in theory, incinerating chlorine-containing materials such as PVC can be done safely in modern facilities under the proper temperature and other conditions—but many incinerators do not operate under ideal conditions, and many older PVC products coming out of service contain heavy metals and other hazardous materials.

PVC is a thermoplastic that can be easily melted down and re-formed (as opposed to a thermoset plastic, which cannot be re-melted), but recycling it gets complicated: it melts at a lower temperature than some other plastics and introduces chemicals that can break down PET during recycling, contaminating the resin. In the past, PVC products labeled #3 had to be hand sorted out of waste streams to prevent this issue, but automated optical scanners and x-ray technology that detect chlorine have simplified PVC removal. Still, there are more than 100 different varieties of PVC resin, and each finished product has its own blend of additives, so unlike standardized, disposable clear PET bottles, which are recycled in high volume and offer a clean end-product, most PVC products in the building industry are durable goods, and there is little infrastructure or economic incentive to recycle them in the U.S. In Europe, PVC recycling is more common.

Within individual industries, PVC take-back programs have had some success, however. PVC siding offcuts, carpet backing, resilient flooring, and even pipe are now recycled into new products. Still, manufacturers have to carefully vet the material so it meets quality and sustainability objectives, such DEHP avoidance, and use the materials wisely to avoid exposing occupants to older chemistry (such as encasing recycled PVC in new PVC in pipe systems).

Interface’s sustainability rollercoaster

The standard-bearer for PVC recycling is the carpet industry—specifically Interface, whose founder, Ray Anderson, famously introduced sustainability initiatives that inspired similar efforts across the entire carpet industry.

Interface_Atlantic2_b-1.jpg

Interface uses recycled PVC because of the amount of this carpet backing still in the waste stream. PVC selected by Interface has been vetted for heavy metals and low-molecular-weight phthalates, and it can be recycled seven times without losing performance, according to the company.

Photo: Interface

For Interface, PVC-backed carpeting goes hand-in-hand with its recycling efforts, which has been a double-edged sword for the company. Mikhail Davis, director of restorative enterprise at Interface, acknowledges that perceptions from some in the green building industry have gone from industry thought leader to a company that “doesn’t get it,” but he offers a nuanced view of PVC and recycling.

“We understand there are significant issues with the life cycle of PVC,” Davis said, “but materials with serious life-cycle and environmental impact issues are the rule, not the exception.” Interface links recycling and sustainability and has sought materials that work in a closed-loop process with a focus on durability and performance. “You have to look at recyclability,” he said. “Can we make safe use of the incredible amount of materials already in the waste stream, even if they are not perfect, and avoid the larger toxicity impacts of sourcing virgin materials from the oil and chemical industries?” he asked. “Is it ‘one and done,’ and your material still ends up in the landfill rather than solving the larger system problem?” Using recycled PVC is a challenge, though. Interface has tested and rejected more than 50 post-consumer vinyl streams due to their additives, according to Davis.

The company uses recycled PVC in its GlasBac RE-backed carpets, which boast 79% recycled content, including 25%–30% post-consumer vinyl backing, and can be recycled up to seven times with no loss in performance. He claims that other materials, such as lighter-weight polyolefins, break down after as few as two cycles and then have to be “down-cycled” or disposed of. Interface has a goal of using 100% recycled PVC by 2020 but is also looking for alternate materials. He claims the company worked on a PVC replacement (including PVB, which is used by other carpeting companies) but none met its performance requirements, and the company deemed toxicity concerns with softeners in those plastics to be no improvement when compared with PVC.

Industry Initiatives and Transparency

The relationship between the vinyl industry and the green building movement has been contentious, with little, if anything, counting as dialogue between the two sides. Technical and substantive information on environmental challenges of PVC don’t appear anywhere on the Vinyl Institute’s website. Instead, its “Advocacy” section focuses primarily on political action to promote vinyl industry interests.

PVC Building Products and Their Alternatives

EBN_2_2014_PVC_1200px.jpg

Summing up the environmental and performance attributes of the many PVC alternatives in a few sentences is an impossible task, but we have attempted a summary of common PVC applications and alternatives here. For more detailed guidance, see GreenSpec and the related EBN feature articles linked from the main article.

Source: BuildingGreen, Inc.

Compare this with Europe, whose major vinyl trade organization, PVC Europe, provides detailed information on ingredients and regulations and has a long-established voluntary program for reducing the impacts of PVC production and use. The organization’s VinylPlus initiative has its own website and sets up “challenges” and deadlines for increasing recycled content and refining that process, reducing organochlorine emissions, and addressing additives such as stabilizers and plasticizers. Products in Europe have to meet REACH standards for numerous chemicals, whereas vinyl products in the U.S. have fewer restrictions and often rely on optional standards, such as NSF/ANSI 342: Sustainability Assessment for Wallcovering Products, that have a history of recognizing conventional vinyl products, apparently doing little to push companies to address environmental or material life-cycle safety concerns.

Though Blakey said there is little practical difference between the U.S. PVC industry and European manufacturing, the lack of meaningful dialogue between the Vinyl Institute and the green building community only worsens PVC’s reputation.

The Vinyl industry acknowledges this tension exists. John Serrano, the Vinyl Institute’s marketing and communications coordinator, told EBN, “One of the things we are trying to do is cut through some of the antagonistic relationships that have existed and allow people to understand that we are behind transparency and sustainable design and construction.” Perhaps the industry is changing, but if so, recent actions suggest that not everyone has gotten the memo.

Along with the American Chemistry Council, the vinyl industry has fought changes in LEED v4 that address chemicals of concern (including spreading misinformation on LEED policy on multiple occasions) and has backed LEED competitors. And in response to Health Product Declarations, the Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI), whose members are predominantly vinyl flooring manufacturers, came up with their own ingredient disclosure label, the Product Transparency Declaration (PTD) (see “Vinyl Group Launches Reporting Label for Toxic Chemicals”). Lobbying efforts and other initiatives typically downplay health and environmental impacts from the product’s whole life cycle while also calling for life-cycle assessment (LCA) as the only “scientific” way to assess sustainability. Notably, LCA focuses on energy, water, and waste and does a very poor job of quantifying health hazards and environmental pollution from a material’s life cycle. These programs’ health focus is narrow, emphasizing VOCs and ignoring the semi-volatile phthalates that remain the major health drawback of many vinyl products.

Without better industry communication, regulations, and disclosure of chemical ingredients, end-users have taken matters into their own hands. When healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente first began compiling a list of chemicals of concern in the early 2000s, its priority was protecting public health, said John Kouletsis, the company’s senior vice president of facilities design and planning. “We started out with the precautionary principle based on as much scientific evidence as we could find,” he said, and at the time there was a lot of information coming out about PVC and dioxins. PVC was put on Kaiser’s list, and the organization reached out to carpet and wallcovering manufacturers to ask for PVC-free alternatives with similar performance and price, which didn’t exist at the time.

Instead of pushback, Kaiser discovered, “we were the first people to ask, and it turned out they [manufacturers] didn’t want to be using products that had health concerns either.” In the years that followed, major carpet and wallcovering manufacturers worked to provide these products, and healthcare competitors began asking Kaiser for its list of suppliers, which, in the spirit of health and transparency, it provided, according to Kouletsis.

Companies that use PVC, such as Interface and InPro, have piloted development of environmental product declarations (EPDs, which show life-cycle impacts from cradle to grave) and the Health Product Declarations (HPD, which provides material health data). “Transparency has been a big game changer by changing the tenor of the dialogue,” Davis explained. Instead of having a confrontation, “People are able to have an in-depth, nuanced conversation because they (manufacturers) are putting ingredients and environmental impacts on the table, where you can talk about tradeoffs in a real way.” (For more, see “The Product Transparency Movement: Peeking Behind the Corporate Veil.”)

InPro has an EPD on its biobased PETG G2 rigid wall panels as well as on its vinyl offerings. “We were part of the pilot program back in 2012,” according to InPro’s sustainability expert Amanda Goetsch, “and since then, we have released 60 HPDs.” The company has learned a lot about its PVC products through the HPD process. When residuals and colors and pigments showed up as carcinogens, “that opened our eyes as to what we can improve on.”

HPDs required InPro to get product information from PVC manufacturers, and according to Goetsch, those companies have been very responsive to InPro’s information requests and are willing to engage, contrary to industry perceptions. PVC supplier Axiall partnered with InPro to develop the company’s PVC with a biobased plasticizer and organic, non-heavy-metal stabilizers, and “in May 2014, we are holding our first supplier transparency summit.” The HPDs have been more of a challenge for the company’s G2 product, however. The company is waiting for its patent before releasing the G2 HPD due to concerns about revealing proprietary ingredients (though HPDs can accommodate this).

The Tangled Web of PVC

Like the twisted network of pipes carrying oil, gas, and industrial chemicals for miles between and through plants in the American south and elsewhere, PVC itself is a labyrinthine tangle. Following one path can lead to snarl after snarl of complexity, from the direct impacts of PVC to those of its additives, and the impacts of other plastics and replacements.

Whether in reaction to the severity and persistence of PVC’s impacts, the sheer volume of information on impacts, the denial and misinformation from the PVC industry, or other factors, many green building professionals are simply opting to ban or avoid PVC, and are trying to find safer alternatives. Others continue to specify PVC, particularly when it is perceived as the best fit for durability, cost, or other reasons. “There is definitely an interest (from building owners) in reducing PVC but not in eliminating it in all applications,” said Wilmot Sanz’s Walter. When she uses PVC, she prefers products without phthalate plasticizers that will be used in applications where the PVC will last the lifetime of the building. “In a plumbing product, it will last; in a flooring product, it will not.”

Whatever path they’re on, designers like Walter often have had to educate themselves. “Most designers don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to keep up on green chemistry,” she said, but she sees it as an important part of her job. “When you are trying to make better choices and a client only wants a PVC floor tile, you can start to have a conversation about plasticizers and other sustainability issues,” she said. “It is a matter of keeping the conversation open and being open to pulling them along on a sustainability pathway.”

What is the future of PVC?

Though PVC still has some significant life-cycle concerns, the industry in the U.S. has cleaned up its act over the last 20 years, and part of that success has to be attributed to public awareness generated by groups like Greenpeace, the Healthy Building Network, and programs like the Living Building Challenge. While a full phase-out of PVC, as proposed by Greenpeace more than 20 years ago, is nowhere close to being realized, the advocacy of these organizations has contributed to some projects going PVC-free, others to selectively finding alternatives, and to arguably safer products all around.

For those continuing the push to replace all PVC, there are no guarantees. “We have all talked about new chemicals that we don’t think are tested well enough,” said Kouletsis, “but it scares us to think that we got PVC out but might have put a new plasticizer in that might be just as bad.” For the Living Building Challenge Red List, which tracks new chemical hazards, “When we are asked what material to red flag, almost any composite plastic material is going to be a challenge,” Sturgeon said, adding that the point of the list is to drive development of and demand for safer materials. If PVC replacement materials show similar or worse environmental profiles, those too will be added to the list, she confirmed. LBC’s red list is up for revision in the spring of 2014, and it would be a surprise if PVC weren’t on it—but the goal is to encourage change. “Maybe a great result of us having PVC on the red list would be that PVC industry does transform,” Sturgeon said. “That would be a great outcome.”

Continuing Education

Receive continuing education credit for reading this article. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has approved this course for 1 LU/HSW. The Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) has approved this course for 1 CE hour towards the LEED Credential Maintenance Program. The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) has approved this course for 1 LFA hour.

Learning Objectives

Upon completing this course, participants will be able to:

    1. Catalog the history of PVC in the building industry.
    1. Recount the connections between PVC and chlorine, dioxins, mercury, and vinyl chloride.
    1. Explain the issues involving PVC stabilizers and plasticizers.
    1. Expound the current realities of PVC production and end-of-life concerns.

To earn continuing education credit, make sure you are logged into your personal BuildingGreen account, then read this article and pass this quiz. In addition, to receive continuing education credit for ILFI, please add to the discussion forum on this page by providing a thoughtful comment on the article—for example, its effect on your practice and engagement with Living Building Challenge concepts and petals.

Discussion Questions

Use the following questions to inform class discussions or homework assignments.

    1. What's the problem with dioxin? How does PVC produce dioxin? What, according to EPA, are the three largest emitters of dioxin? How does PVC fit into that assemblage? What other building materials emit dioxin?
    1. In what situation would you be concerned about mercury with regards to PVC?
    1. Why is there still concern about VCM leaching from PVC pipe into drinking water? What is it about VCM that "makes releases particularly problematic"?
    1. The phthalate-free flooring material is more expensive than the product your company typically specifies but, after careful review of the health concerns involving phthalates, you're sold. How do you now sell it to your clients?
    1. Why would the American vinyl industry call for "LCA as the only scientific way to assess sustainability"? What are the differences between PVC Europe and the Vinyl Institute?
    1. Do you think Interface's goal of using 100% recycled PVC is compatible with its search for alternate materials?
    1. "In the spirit of health and transparency," Kaiser Permanente provided its list of PVC-free carpet and wallcovering suppliers to competitors. How would you engender such altruism in other building types?

 

 

 

Comments (8)

1 on PVC posted by Bruce King on 09/17/2014 at 01:02 pm

 

A great article, Brent!  Many thanks for getting that out, a lot of us needed the refresher and update.  What would we do without you guys?

2 The PVC Debate posted by Brian O Brien on 08/08/2014 at 10:01 am

It was high time I went back to review my knowledge on PVC. Being in a private practise weve been able to indulge in its avoidance/minimisation without having to continually produce complex argument or justification to the point where the sharp arguments have become a little fuzzy. This article a great in-depth on the subject and covers a lot of valuable ground. Its useful to revise the history (both chemical and  in term of PVC as an industry) of its rise and partial fall (from grace if nothing else) - completed I suppose by it being included on LBCs red list which is our interest. More importantly however is the way it examines the links between different chemical and building products, showing the web of consequence that phthlates, dioxins etc weave right through ones specification (from carpets to pipes, from wiring to cladding). Interesting too I have to grudgingly admit that the industry has made significant improvements in some areas of production, but pre cautionary principle says while there's any doubt, and while benign alternatives exist, avoid.

The table on alternatives was perhaps the most tangibly useful part of the article and was structured clearly. I was surprised that earthenware pipework wasn't included  as an alternative for sewerage here though. 

Only 1 minor suggestion, some indication of the embodied energy (ee) and embodied water maybe, cost of producing all this PVC would have been useful. The other environmental and health impacts were explored comprehensively but ee comparison might have also been useful.

All in all, l I feel rearmed if not re-energised on the subject and can once again produce a sharp argument for finding alternatives.

3 Blue Vinyl posted by Dennis Latta on 06/01/2014 at 12:54 am

When I attended Greenbuild 2002 in Austin TX there was a side event showing the documentary Blue Vinyl. I appreciated how it showed much of what is behind the simple material purchases we make.

4 PVC Debate posted by Rick Robson on 02/04/2014 at 11:30 am

The ultimate answer for environmental purity (sustainability) will elude us for some time as material science develops. We are not going to get there easily. Given that society is not going to give up the convenience or low price of PVC components paves the road to what I've heard termed "Bridging Technology". We need to encourage positive steps in the right direction even if clearly not the solution. Purchase alternatives when available, at least occasionally, to encourage investment in even more alternatives. Recovered materials seems a great idea. The underlying concept is sound.

5 Specifying PVC posted by James Van Eman on 02/10/2014 at 06:32 pm

Good article. I am trying to be open minded about "appropriate uses" of PVC, even though I was an early campaigner against the material because of its link with dioxins. I am impressed with the technical gains made by the industry in reduction of waste and by-products during production. My concern is the material's ubiquity. I would suggest (no research on my part) that the bulk of installed PVC is NOT specified. The stuff is in everything and available for anyone to purchase. The lion's share of residential isn't designed or specified; most of it is using PVC due to cost. Even larger projects are specified on a performance basis and PVC will be selected by the contractors based on cost. The kicker for me is that one of the few positive attributes of the material is longevity, while one of the most pernicious is that very longevity. The stuff is essentially eternal. My experience as a designer has been that there are always alternatives to PVC but it's almost always a battle to get them.

6 Green List? posted by Christopher Light on 02/26/2014 at 08:12 pm

Red-listing PVC is a step in the right direction and has encouraged some manufacturers to explore alternatives, however, the alternatives are usually just 'less bad.' Almost everything we put into buildings lands somewhere on a spectrum--nothing is really best, some are generally a little better than others. We need to develop a framework for cataloging materials and placing them on a spectrum of relative harm--considering the tools available to us today, a rigorous, standardized, and robust LCA process may be a feasible option for bench-marking substances and assigning a relative score. Conceivably, a database containing this information for the most common building materials could provide a basis for calculating an overall building material 'hazard score' that would help designers consider the overall impact of the project, in its entirety, on human health and the environment.

7 PVC and limitations posted by Ibrahim El-Shair on 03/04/2014 at 03:08 am

Despite of putting PVC on the Red List of LBC in 2009 because of: 1- Concerns about phathalates and chlorine. 2- The limited ability to recycle it. 3- Health of the environment and workers. But we still have a problem in our region (MENA Region)because we are still importers and have not any alternatives of PVC to specify with the same level of performance and cost since these two measures are the most required by regular investors/owners which are not yet considering green building concepts. I hope LBC concepts will be a start point to change this approach in MENA region.

8 A World Without a Red List? posted by Nora Rizzo on 03/13/2014 at 03:06 pm

In an ideal world, every product, not only building materials, but all consumer products would have a Declare-like label on them. In an even more ideal world, Red Lists wouldn't need to exist because there would be no demand for harmful products and manufacturers would not entertain the idea of producing something that no one would want to purchase. Ultimately, we in the building industry are the consumer and we need to stop the demand. Designers need to specify appropriate materials and owners need to understand that there may be a small first cost premium asscociated with some of these choices. Innovators like the Living Building Challenge are giving us the tools and the motivation we need to build healthier spaces but it has to be a collaborative effort.

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February 3, 2014