October 1, 2007
The Right Materials: The Vinyl Question
Mainstream science and environmental groups have lambasted it, green customers and clients shun it, and companies are scrambling for alternatives. So why is PVC still so ubiquitous?
Allen Blakey, senior director for public affairs at the Vinyl Institute, is worried. Vinyl—or PVC, short for polyvinyl chloride—is under siege by scientists and environmental groups. And the attacks are having an effect. Companies such as Apple, Kaiser Permanente, and Steelcase have eliminated PVC or announced plans to phase it out, often after intense pressure from their customers. “It makes me nervous,” Blakey says. “It makes me unhappy.”
But even if we’ve reached a tipping point in the public debate, the way forward is unclear. Vinyl is ubiquitous—some 14 billion pounds are produced every year in North America—and artificially cheap, and not all of its alternatives have yet worked out their kinks. Moreover, as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) suggested in its long-awaited report on PVC, all materials have potential pitfalls, from indoor air quality to disposal. Does removing one bad actor really help to transform the industry? The issue is not just the future of vinyl, but how we think about and choose all our materials.
Vinyl’s life cycle begins and ends with hazards, most stemming from chlorine, its primary component. “It’s the only common plastic that’s chlorinated,” says Frank Ackerman, a Tufts University professor and coauthor of the 2003 paper “The Economics of Phasing Out PVC.” “Its life cycle involves a lot of these chlorinated organic compounds, which are simply not involved in the other plastics.” Vinyl chloride, the building block of PVC, causes cancer. Lead and cadmium are sometimes added to vinyl as stabilizers; and phthalate plasticizers, which give PVC its flexibility, pose potential reproductive risks. Manufacturing vinyl or burning it in incinerators produces dioxin, a persistent and highly toxic compound. The Vinyl Institute, the trade association of the industry, maintains that the risks are overblown. “We don’t know of anyone who’s injured these days be-cause they’re using or making vinyl,” Blakey says. But Ackerman says that even with progress in managing hazardous materials, they’re an unnecessary danger when feasible alternatives exist. “PVC looks good in studies where they just look at energy and other ordinary pollutants. And it looks suddenly terrible when you produce questions about toxicity.”
The problem with replacing PVC is that it’s a hydra-headed cipher. It can be made into practically anything—flooring, toys, window frames, IV bags, drink bottles, siding, and packaging. In 2002 some 30,000 miles of PVC water pipe were laid in the United States alone. Because of vinyl’s versatility, companies in the green vanguard must find materials to replace each of its functions.
Many are experimenting with similar but less toxic plastics. Last fall Mohawk introduced Encycle, a thermoplastic carpet backing, at a cost of $18 million. By next year all of its carpets will be vinyl-free. Shaw Industries changed its carpets to polyolefin-based EcoWorx in 2004. Steelcase no longer makes new products with PVC and is converting its existing ones by 2012. The company recently released PVC-free versions of Answer—its best-selling office system—and Montage, the model that contained the most PVC. The electrical-wire coatings, formerly vinyl, are now made from nylon, and polypropylene is used as edge banding. Steelcase has worked with William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s MBDC consulting firm to evaluate materials and with university researchers to produce extensive life-cycle assessments.
Other companies are concerned about vinyl but struggle to find adequate substitutes. Maharam, for instance, offers a handful of celluose- and polyurethane-based alternatives, but uses PVC in some upholstery and half of its wall-coverings. It has tested many other materials that fall short. “The substrate of a vinyl wall-covering can be printed on in multiple colors, it can be embossed, it’s antimicrobial, water-resistant, and very durable,” says Annette Schaich, vice president of marketing. “Any material that’s an alternative has to have the same properties.”
This year Carnegie Fabrics introduced Surface IQ, an olefin-based wall-covering that addresses durability concerns, according to Cliff Goldman, Carnegie’s president. Surface IQ is competitive with the higher range of vinyl products; as more novel alternatives gain traction, economies of scale will diminish their costs—as must happen before they hope to contend with vinyl. “PVC’s price is right down to as low as you can imagine given the raw materials,” Ackerman says.
Scot Horst, who chaired the USGBC’s PVC Task Group, believes that even if companies perform due diligence, buildings should be looked at holistically. Every material has negative impacts, and removing one that causes harm in a particular area could have unintended consequences elsewhere. “We don’t want to just keep pushing one end of the balloon and having it pop out somewhere else,” Horst says. He suggests that LEED’s materials credits include life-cycle and risk-assessment analyses to get the market to deal with specific issues rather than banning any one material outright. In the case of vinyl, though, there really isn’t any way to separate out the main source of the problem—chlorine—without ending up with something other than PVC.
Goldman thinks the market will act faster than LEED. “There’s always science, one way or the other. But people are starting to operate on the precautionary principle,” he says. “If it acts like a duck and walks like a duck, it probably is a duck. And if the science is there that says PVC has some nasty things about it, I don’t need definitive hundred-percent proof to look for an alternative. I think that’s a sound way for architects and clients to operate.”
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