What Can We Do About PVC?

The environmental and health risks of polyvinyl chloride are well known, and the alternatives are getting better. Are architects and interior designers ready to make the PVC pivot?

Styling by Catherine Campell Pearson

On February 3, 2023, a train run by the freight company Norfolk Southern and carrying more than 100,000 gallons of chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Because the contents of the 150 train cars were hazardous, officials made the difficult decision to vent and burn the chemicals in a controlled manner to avoid a much more catastrophic explosion that would have exposed 4,700 people to carcinogens. As it was, a fireball and column of smoke loomed over the town, and it took nearly nine months until Norfolk Southern was able to say that it had cleaned up the contamination. East Palestine residents, who complained of rashes, sore throats, nausea, and headaches shortly after the incident, are still concerned about the long-term impact on their health. The cancer-causing chemical that officials and residents were most worried about is vinyl chloride, a colorless, flammable gas that is primarily used to make polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. Sixty-one percent of all PVC produced in the world is used in building and construction. You might know it simply as “vinyl.” 

Sixty-one percent of all PVC produced in the world is used in building and construction. You might know it simply as “vinyl.” 

Over the past two decades, sustainability-focused architects, interior designers, researchers, and manufacturers have been locked in a slow-burning battle to phase out PVC in the building industry, primarily because of the vinyl chloride used to make it, but also because of the other toxic chemicals that are typically added to it. “Phthalate-free” has become a common descriptor for PVC products, and manufacturers are developing a host of substitutes in the form of other plastics and bio-based chemicals. At last year’s NeoCon, Designtex, Mannington Commercial, Shaw Contract, and Wolf-Gordon were among the many brands offering PVC-free or PVC-alternative textiles, flooring, and wallcoverings.

Yet PVC rules. “The market has never been more open to PVC alternatives than it is right now,” says Giselle Walsh, a sustainability and regulatory consultant to the Wallcoverings Association. “But the reality of what’s ending up on a jobsite is still mostly PVC.”

What are the Problems with PVC?

The very properties that make PVC an unbeatable choice for pipes, siding, wiring, flooring, upholstery, and wallcoverings are also the reasons sustainability experts absolutely abhor it. “It’s durable, it’s easy to mold, colors well, it plays well with other materials. It’s inexpensive and it has this wonderful little boon, which is that because of the chlorine in it, it tends to be inherently more fire retardant than almost any other plastic,” says Andrew Dent, chief material scientist at Material Bank and executive vice president of research at Material ConneXion. “And with a plasticizer [added] you can make it as rigid as siding and as flexible as a textile.”

But chlorine—in the form of vinyl chloride—is why making PVC and burning PVC waste are both hazardous. The most commonly added plasticizers used to be a class of chemicals called phthalates, which can leach into the air and disrupt our endocrine system, permanently affecting fertility and potentially causing birth defects. These are now heavily regulated and have largely been eliminated from U.S.-made PVC but continue to be a problem with plastic imported from overseas. PVC may also contain stabilizers with toxic heavy metals like cadmium or lead that are coming under scrutiny both in the European Union and in the United States. This array of chemical concerns is why the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) still lists PVC on its Red List of ingredients to be avoided in the built environment. It might also be the reason why only about one percent of vinyl products are recycled, despite PVC itself technically being a recyclable plastic.

The size of the problem seems matched by the number of attempts to find viable vinyl alternatives.

1. BRISA Ultrafabrics: This textured polyurethane fabric comes in a wide range of colors and is both durable and breathable. Its backing is made of recycled REPREVE polyester fibers and responsibly sourced rayon.
2. PROXY Mannington: This PVC-free flooring solution is made from a combination of PET and polyurethane, is Declare Red List Free, and is 105 percent carbon offset from cradle to gate.
3. DOURO Momentum: This Type III non-PVC wallcovering is an olefin composite with 39 percent postindustrial recycled content. Douro has a deep vertical embossing reminiscent of corduroy.
1. CHEVRON STROKE Skyline Design: Since 2022, Skyline Design has made some of its patterns available in a PVC-free polyester film for application to architectural glass, Plexiglas, and steel. Shown here is the Forest colorway in a pattern designed by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec.
2. PROXY Mannington Commercial: (Velum Smoke)
3. DOURO Momentum: (North Dell)
1. XOREL VEIL Carnegie: The lacelike delicacy of this fabric belies its durability. Made of Xorel with some polyester in the back, Veil is Cradle to Cradle Certified Silver. Shown here is color number 31.
2. INNATE Shaw Contract: This resilient tile is made of a Cradle to Cradle–certified bio-based polyurethane derived from canola, castor, and rapeseed oils. The Mineral color is shown here.
3.BRISA Ultrafabrics : (Ice Pink)
1. BRISA Ultrafabrics: (Caramel)
2. NATURE’S TILE AND PLANK Teknoflor: This high-performance bio-polyurethane flooring, processed from castor seed oil and natural minerals, is Red List Approved by ILFI. Designers can choose from 42 visuals (Terra Cotta shown here) and coordinate the tile or plank with Teknoflor’s Naturescapes sheet product.
3. SILICONE SKYLINE Designtex: It took two years of development in printing techniques to achieve the clarity of pattern in this silicone fabric that exceeds industry standards for clean chemistry and has no PFAS, antimicrobials, or fire retardants.

What Are the Alternatives?

In the interiors industry, Carnegie was an early change-maker with its polyethylene wallcovering Xorel launching in 1981. Xorel’s woven structure and luster are very different from the slick, printable qualities of vinyl wallcovering, yet it managed to gain a foothold, becoming a favorite in the hospitality industry. “The more daring designers fell in love with it right away, while those more skeptical came around over time,” recalls Carnegie’s chief creative officer Heather Bush. About a decade ago, the bio-based version of Xorel launched, and it is now the only textile of its kind to be certified by ILFI’s Living Product Challenge, the most stringent sustainability certification for products.

Other textile and wallcovering manufacturers have selected silicone, olefins, or polyurethane as their PVC alternatives. In the first camp are textile manufacturers Momentum Group— which launched its Silica line in 2010 with a blend of silicone and corn-based PLA—and Designtex, which released four new silicone textiles with an astonishing range of colors and textures for both indoor and outdoor use at NeoCon this year. In the olefin group are wallcovering products from Carnegie, which began offering a line of thermoplastic olefin wallcoverings in 2014, and Wolf-Gordon, which released an olefin composite product called Clair in 2020, offering bleach cleanability and durability on par with vinyl wallcoverings. Japan-born company Ultrafabrics released its Volar Bio line of polyurethane fabric with biobased content in 2019, and has since made additional moves toward sustainability by including rapidly renewable TENCEL cellulosic fibers in its composition.

In their quest for PVC alternatives some flooring manufacturers have turned to older solutions that had been languishing under the juggernaut of luxury vinyl tile (LVT). Rubber fooring, for example, had suffered from being aesthetically limited, but both Tarkett and Interface have upped the ante with their Johnsonite and Nora brands, respectively. And in terms of sustainability, Johnsonite Rubber Tile released its first environmental product declaration (EPD) this past September, while Nora products have a PEFC certification proving that their material is sourced from sustainably managed rubber plantations.

Also this year, Shaw Contract introduced a new collection of resilient flooring called Dappled Light. Created in collaboration with NBBJ senior associate Eric Koffler, the collection is an attempt to introduce a non-PVC solution into health-care design. Last year, Shaw Contract introduced BottleFloor, a new type of resilient flooring made out of postconsumer PET bottles. For those determined to eschew PVC, there have never been more options available.

Meanwhile, PVC products themselves have undergone a bit of a transformation. Interface, for example, found a way in 2020 to start including 39 percent preconsumer recycled content in its LVT product lines. And all the PVC that the company uses is free of phthalates, heavy metals, and formaldehyde, making it more easily recyclable as well.

1. INNATE Shaw Contract : This resilient tile is made of a Cradle to Cradle–certified bio-based polyurethane derived from canola, castor, and rapeseed oils. The Flax color is shown here.
2. CHECK Skyline Design: Pink/Yellow
3. HIGH PLAINS Momentum: Part of the Versa collection of wallcoverings, the textured High Plains is made of 80 percent olefin composite and 30 percent postindustrial recycled olefin composite.
1. NATURE’S TILE AND PLANK Teknoflor: This high-performance bio-polyurethane flooring, processed from castor seed oil and natural minerals, is Red List Approved by ILFI. Designers can choose from 42 visuals (Marine Cove shown here) and coordinate the tile or plank with Teknoflor’s Naturescapes sheet product.
2. BRISA Ultrafabrics: (Cambridge Blue)
3. HIGH PLAINS Momentum: Desert Spring

Why Can’t We Simply Switch To Alternatives?

But even this hopeful juncture, unfortunately, doesn’t mean that things are going to get easier for designers who want to make the most sustainable choice. Every PVC alternative brings with it some limitations—some bio-based materials, for example, can’t compete with the range of colors possible with conventional plastics, while others just haven’t been around long enough to inspire confidence in clients, even though the materials test favorably in laboratory conditions. Another concern is that the recyclability of some PVC alternatives isn’t much better than that of PVC products. Polyurethane isn’t easily recyclable either, and “silicone has a worse end-of-life scenario than PVC because there really is no option to recycle the upholstery,” Dent explains. Silicone’s one advantage might be that it’s not reliant on fossil fuels and it has a relatively clean manufacturing process. But it is derived from sand, which is not the infinitely renewable resource you might think it is—humankind is using sand faster than nature can replenish it, already causing all kinds of holdups in construction and glass manufacturing around the world. 

On the other hand, architects and designers will find it harder and harder to simply look away from the hazards of PVC and continue to specify as they have gotten used to doing. In the wake of the East Palestine disaster, the federal government in the U.S. has indicated that the Environmental Protection Agency will likely undertake a review of the dangers posed by vinyl chloride; an unfavorable assessment might make it much harder to produce PVC. Meanwhile, new concerns continue to emerge—a recent investigation by Sheffield Hallam University’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice and Material Research L3C found that about 10 percent of the world’s PVC, including some that is used in the United States, is produced in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in plants that have been linked to human rights abuses. 

What’s the Way Forward?

One safe step forward in this quagmire might be to at least displace PVC as the default for high-performance applications. The performance standards for the durability and tear resistance of wallcoverings are based on the typical performance of Type II vinyl wallcoverings, points out Erika Gaies, an executive vice president of sales enablement and marketing at Carnegie, “and that immediately makes a connection in designers’ minds that in order to perform well it needs to be a vinyl,” even though nonvinyl wall coverings might also meet or exceed those requirements. “We need to break the stereotype that vinyl and only vinyl equals performance,” she says. Instead, specifiers should be able to weigh the merits of different options based on the goals and priorities of each project—thereby incentivizing both the cleanup of PVC and the improvement of alternatives. 

Ultimately, though, “there may be no more immediate threat to our [architects’] survival than our Faustian bargain with fossil-fuel based polymers,” writes Franca Trubiano, associate professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, in the book Material Health Design Frontiers (Lund Humphries, 2023). In addition to vinyl chloride, at least three of the other chemicals of concern in the East Palestine train derailment are used in buildings, intended for the manufacture of paints, sealants, and adhesives. Indeed, the building and construction industry is the second-largest consumer of plastics in the world, none of which have an unblemished track record of manufacturing, most of which don’t have an easy path to circularity, and the majority of which still rely on a resource that is warming our atmosphere to dangerous levels as it is being used up. PVC is not the only material in the built environment that is in sore need of a pivot, because the one thing we know we don’t have an alternative for is the planet we live on. 

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