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Pro/Con: Vinyl Is Green

Posted on Jan 10 2009 by Daniel Morrison

Vinyl's affordability can help green go mainstream

BY PATRICK MOORE
Architects and home builders across the nation are increasingly interested in green building. Yet, especially in this time of deep economic uncertainty, green building must not only be environmentally friendly, it must also be affordable.

Green products that are out of reach for the average consumer will remain niche products that have little chance to make a positive impact on the environment.

Moving green building beyond niche status and into the mainstream requires the use of affordable, widely available, and environmentally friendly products. We know how to measure affordability and availability, but how do we determine what’s environmentally friendly?

Fortunately, tools are being refined that help builders and consumers choose. Life-cycle analysis (LCALife-cycle assessment. Examination of environmental and health impacts of a product or material over its life cycle; provides a mechanism for comparing different products and materials for green building.) is the science of examining a product’s entire life, from extraction of raw materials and manufacturing to transportation and installation to final disposal or recycling. Another tool is risk analysis. All activities, including making and using products of various materials, carry risks. Risk analysis helps us put risks and benefits into perspective.

LCA shows that two of the most important environmental features of products are renewability and durability. Renewable materials and energy sources are green by nature. Durable materials last longer and require less upkeep.

So which materials perform well in life-cycle and risk assessments? Wood, of course, is abundant, renewable, requires far less energy to make than either steel or concrete, soaks up carbon dioxide, and has diverse applications. It has a strongly positive life-cycle impact.

So does vinyl. More than half derived from common salt, vinyl is one of the most energy-efficient materials to make. Vinyl's energy-efficiency attributes are further highlighted in the performance of products such as windows. It is durable and lasts for decades with relatively little maintenance compared to that required for other materials. At end of life, it can be managed in the same fashion as other building materials. We are constantly learning of increasingly successful techniques for recycling vinyl building products at the installation and even end-of-life stages.

Yet vinyl gets targeted by environmental activists. Some have created lists of objections.

The fact is that vinyl’s environmental issues have been thoroughly studied and answered.

Dioxin? The vinyl-products industry was always a small contributor of dioxin in the environment (somewhere between 8 to 10 grams annually in the U.S.) and has worked to reduce even those emissions. Dioxin levels in the environment have been falling for decades (a regulatory success story you probably have not heard about). Those concerned about this issue today should be objecting to backyard burning, power plants, vehicle emissions, and other larger sources of dioxin.
Heavy metals? You don’t need lead, cadmium, mercury, or other “heavy” metals to make vinyl.

Plasticizers? According to government health review bodies in Europe, Canada and the United States, there is no evidence that phthalates – the plasticizers in vinyl products – cause harm.

Vinyl scores well in life cycle tests. The U.S. Green Building Council, the European Commission, and the state of California all looked comprehensively at vinyl’s pros and cons and concluded that its overall impacts were in line with those of other materials – and that vinyl could do better than the competition in some applications.

Vinyl products are constantly being improved and – under programs such as FloorScore, Green Label Plus, and GreenguardThird-party certification program that identifies building products and materials which produce relatively low levels of emissions. GreenGuard is administered by the nonprofit GreenGuard Environmental Institute (GEI). Other GEI programs include the Children & Schools standard, which addresses emission standards for educational facilities, and the GreenGuard for Building Construction Program, a mold risk-reduction program that certifies the design, construction, and ongoing operations of new multifamily and commercial properties. standards – new products are now being certified by third parties as low emission.

The best way to deliver affordable, safe drinking water is through a vinyl pipe. The best way to insulate electrical wiring is with a vinyl coating. In hospitals, vinyl is used widely for floors and wall coverings because it is easily cleaned and disinfected. Vinyl is a durable, cost-effective siding for buildings because of its low maintenance requirements and long life. Building with vinyl saves on energy and material costs.

At a time when sustainability, affordability, renewability, and durability are paramount, we should be using more, not less, of the materials that score well in comprehensive life-cycle evaluations.

And in case you don’t think affordability has a place in this discussion, don’t forget that the money saved upfront on energy-efficient materials like vinyl can be spent on other environmental add-ons, such as a ground-source heat pumpHome heating and cooling system that relies on the mass of the earth as the heat source and heat sink. Temperatures underground are relatively constant. Using a ground-source heat pump, heat from fluid circulated through an underground loop is transferred to and/or from the home through a heat exchanger. The energy performance of ground-source heat pumps is usually better than that of air-source heat pumps; ground-source heat pumps also perform better over a wider range of above-ground temperatures. that uses clean geothermal energyHot water or steam extracted from reservoirs beneath the Earth's surface; can be used for heat pumps, water heating, or electricity generation. The term may also mean the use of near-constant underground temperatures by ground-source heat pumps to provide heating and cooling. to make a home even more sustainable.

An advisor to government and industry, Dr. Patrick Moore was a co-founder of Greenpeace and is now chairman and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd., www.greenspiritstrategies.com.

Read an opposing view: Vinyl is Lethal


Tags:

1.
Jan 20, 2009 10:26 AM ET

Vinyl from a regulatory position
by Lynn Underwood

From a regulatory standpoint, vinyl products compose many very common building materials that provide for sanitation or safety. Products such as water and sewage pipe, electrical conduit and wiring insulation as well as exterior siding. Acknowledging several of the points made by the opposing article: Vinyl is lethal; and considering the value added by the positive attributes, cause me to ask the question, what will be the effects on the environment when an alternative product must be created that provides for these functions? In terms of affordability and use, vinyl products have allowed owner-builders to perform several aspects of construction such as water supply pipe, sewage pipe; saving otherwise excessive costs and making it much easier for an owner-built home.


2.
Jan 20, 2009 4:39 PM ET

Which green are we talking about?
by Ann Edminster

Vinyl is often the material of choice from the perspective of affordability, which is indisputably one aspect of green. But from a holistic, biological-function perspective, vinyl is clearly not green. The two should not be viewed as inseparable, nor should affordability be used as an excuse to ignore the very real shortcomings of vinyl. Many of our green building strategies are transitional -- that is, we need them now, as we progress from the conventional building practices of today to the regenerative building practices of tomorrow. In the green-built tomorrow, vinyl will have no place because it doesn't pass muster w/r/t all aspects of green. Even today, there are compelling reasons to look to other "value engineering" opportunities in order to afford vinyl replacements in a green home.


3.
Jan 22, 2009 2:56 PM ET

Vinyl is Green like clear-cutting forests is Green
by Rob Tom

When I first saw the "Vinyl is Green" subject I thought that its author was pulling a Bjorn Lomberg -- saying something "controversial" just to get some attention. And then I saw who the author was -- the same person who argued for clear-cutting -- and then it began to make sense.

"Healthy" is usually a big constituent of most people's definition of Green. I don't think that even Mr. Moore would suggest that the toxins leached/off-gassed by PVC are desirable elements to have in living environments that aspire to be heathy.

Nor do I buy the "Cheap makes it okay" argument.
All "cheap" does is make the use of a Brown material more widespread.

The Europeans and NASA got it right two decades ago when they banned the use of PVC, labelling it as an "Environmental Toxin".

I don't know why we're still having this discussion in a supposedly Green forum in Y2k+9 when even the Big Three automakers are making Green-ish overtures.

Sheesh!


4.
Jan 26, 2009 10:43 AM ET

And yet more misinformation.
by Chris Welton

When you read plausible-sounding arguments from green activists that actually have no scientific basis, it’s depressing to see them being given a platform to promote such damaging ideologies. And not a little ironic, when you understand that out-dated, exaggerated (and sometimes untrue) information is being used in the name of environmental protection, when their advice to stop using vinyl would actually increase our society’s environmental footprint rather than reduce it! For the record, vinyl has never been banned in Europe and there is a growing recognition that this much-maligned material has been unjustifiably misrepresented by the green lobby for years. The European Commission Green Paper “Environmental issues of PVC” COM(2000) 469, stated quite clearly that there was no reason to discriminate against vinyl in favour of other materials. This has subsequently been confirmed in a European study “Life Cycle Assessment of PVC and of principal competing materials” commissioned by the EU authorities and conducted by PE Europe. In fact the UK Building Research Establishment, awarded its top A and A+ ratings for PVC window frames in 2008 and, based on Life Cyle Assessment, the highly respected Swiss EcoDevis has just given a similar top environmental rating to PVC pipes. Let's hope that society comes to its senses about vinyl before the well-intentioned environmentalists - who often have very little understanding of the real consequences of their actions, unwittingly do any more damage to our environment by ridding us of part of the solution to a more sustainable future for a planet with nearly 7 billion inhabitants!


5.
Feb 13, 2009 1:48 PM ET

follow the money
by Bruce King

The vinyl debate can be hard to follow or make sense of. When that happens to me, I look at the money -- who's writing your paycheck? I know Bill Walsh, and know he gets paid -- if he gets paid at all -- by the supporters of his outstanding non-profit, the Healthy Building Network. Mr. Moore claims enviro-credibility as a "co-founder of GreenPeace", a claim in some dispute, and is now paid by various industries to offer his opinions. Of the preceding commenters, Rob Tom and Ann Edminster have been known to me for a very long time as well-read and thoughtful commentators paid by nobody to do so. Lynn Underwood is a very knowledgeable and capable building official with no axe to grind that I know of. Finally, Chris Welton works in the employ of the PR department of the Vinyl Institute, or its offshoot, vinyl.org

Draw your own conclusions.

I've been designing buildings, mostly houses, for 30 years, and researching green materials for 20. The sad fact is, vinyl is a very utilitarian, cheap and durable material that is also poisonous. Roller skating down the middle of a busy street is a very utilitarian, cheap way for my daughter to get to school -- but I still don't let her do it.


6.
Apr 8, 2009 2:22 PM ET

Chris Welton makes a valid point
by Martin Holladay

Bruce King noted that "Chris Welton works in the employ of the PR department of the Vinyl Institute, or its offshoot, vinyl.org." Okay, it's valid to mention his professional association.

But I'm grateful for Chris's contribution here. By pointing out that "vinyl has never been banned in Europe," Chris Welton corrected an egregious error by Rob Tom, who wrote that "The Europeans and NASA got it right two decades ago when they banned the use of PVC."

Anyone who has been involved with residential construction in Germany knows that vinyl windows are extremely popular there.

The bottom line: all of us involved with green construction should be wary of repeating strident statements without doing a little homework and confirming their accuracy. Exaggerations reflect poorly on the green building community.

Thanks for your contribution, Chris.


7.
Apr 10, 2009 7:04 AM ET

VSI green paper
by Mike Guertin

The Vinyl Siding Institute recently put out this take. Authored by a LEED AP and P.E.

http://www.vinylsiding.org/aboutsiding/greenpaper/080919_VSI_Green_Paper...


8.
Jan 14, 2010 2:53 PM ET

Vinyl
by Crystal

Vinyl is not technically a fully "green" floor compared to most eco-friendlier products out there. HOWEVER, along with other commercial glue down sheet or tile goods, it is one of few floors that can just stay down and have a new floor installed over it since it is so thin. It acts as a vapor barrier when left down so, in most cases, it is not removed and put in landfills. I prefer "greener" choices like wool carpet and 100% recycled stranded mixed woods, but for those who cannot afford them vinyl is a good choice. Most cancer research labs apply the toxins in question DIRECTLY onto/into lab animals which is the equivalent to the homeowner licking their floors and rolling around on them naked. The recent radon scare for Granite is the same issue...the homeowners would have to lay fully nude on their slab counters and have 100% skin contact 24/7 to be remotely concerned in most cases. Bottom line...try your best to go with the greenest floor if you can afford it, otherwise, be determined to install your vinyl in such a way that it can be left down should you get a new floor over it later.


9.
Jan 14, 2010 3:26 PM ET

One Qualification...
by Crystal

...One comment to add to my last post above... It's more of a person health issue. Those with resperatory and health concerns should research off-gasing from all products. Almost every product emits a certain amount. 100% Wool carpet is the most healthy choice. In fact it actually works as a filter as it neutralizes formaldehydes and other polutants in the air. Back to the topic of "Green", it is the most renewable bio-degradable resource out there...Okay, back to the Vinyl debate.


10.
Jan 18, 2010 7:35 AM ET

GSHPs & geothermal energy
by Allison A. Bailes III, PhD

OK, I know this isn't related to the main issue of vinyl, but when someone supposedly espousing an environmental position doesn't understand an example he throws out, it makes me doubt everything else he says. In this case, it's Dr. Moore's statement at the very end that the money saved using vinyl can be spent on things like a "ground-source heat pump that uses clean geothermal energy."

GSHPs use electricity, just like air-source heat pumps. They may use less of it, depending on the efficiency, but it's still electricity and, for many of us, still comes from burning coal. The only difference is that it uses the ground or a body of water as its heat source/sink. It doesn't use steam or water heated by hotspots in the Earth's crust, as you might imagine if you read Dr. Moore's statement.

Also, GSHPs are very expensive and rarely cost-effective, so to suggest that saving money on vinyl so that you can install one is ludicrous in my opinion. It reminds me of the picture someone sent me once of a limousine under a long carport in front of a mobile home.


11.
Jan 18, 2010 10:39 AM ET

Why is there even a debate?
by Hans Eich

Hi,

I don't quite understand why there is a debate in the first place. It's not that Vinyl is getting any healthier buy discussing it. I think we are talking about health for people and the environment here.

This is not like a decision weather you want to eat baguette or croissants? No, this is like giving you the choice weather you want to eat a plastic loaf or a real bread.

Mike (Guertin), your link to the Vinyl Siding Institute is dead, but even without seeing it I can certainly assume that it was an argument pro vinyl siding. It's obvious. Follow the money. They are not called the "healthy siding institute". And this is where a lot of companies get it wrong. Why does the "Vinyl Siding Institute" not call themselves "The Institute for Healthy Siding"? They would not act as a lobby to all the siding companies that they get paid by anymore.

A company that made this very clear to me is the carpet manufacturer (I think they are called Shaw Floors). They realized that they are not selling a product but rather providing the service of warm cushy flooring. Putting it this way, they realized that they need to care about the air quality of the home that they are providing with their "carpet service" (they do take the carpet back after useage, so that it almost is like a service).

I think it's time to rethink what we do. Are we just selling siding, or are we providing the service of keeping a house from rotting away, safe and warm?

Think about it.

Hans
Everything is Rethinkable!
http://www.Rethinkable.com


12.
Jan 18, 2010 12:10 PM ET

Thanks for your comments
by Martin Holladay

Hans,
I agree that "keeping a house from rotting away" should be the goal of all builders.

However, there is absolutely no evidence that vinyl siding contributes in any way to wall rot. In fact, there are far fewer wall rot problems associated with vinyl siding than with many other sidings, especially stucco. That's because the typical vinyl siding installation is so well ventilated that it dries quickly to the exterior.


13.
Jan 18, 2010 1:28 PM ET

As a plain old consumer
by Troy

So as a plain old consumer, I'm supposed to use what, rubber coated wire or how about Teflon or do you guys have something "green"? And back to cast iron sewer pipes and what am I to do for underground conduit. Of course NASA would reject vinyl and thousands of products that off gas poisons during fires (I would assume there is not a lot of wood in spacecraft either) in extremely confined spaces but it is probably not a 'vinyl' issue. We all know we can't use vinyl in plenums too.

I don't like vinyl siding and just built a house with renewable cypress siding but I haven't studied the lifecycle of both. It could be that there is a much greater health hazard in that a painter will fall and be severely injured or killed during the every three to four year paint cycle. I also used some “green” stranded flooring but I’m really curious about how those strands are stuck together. When I vented the boxes, my parrot couldn’t have stayed in the room.

I've pretty much concluded that the only way to build "green" is to build a house out of twenty dollar bills. By the time the "green" industry gets finished we will have to use hundred dollar bills and will have to cut down some rain forests.

A little pragmatism would really benefit us plain old consumers.


14.
Jan 19, 2010 8:57 PM ET

Vinyl is NOT GREEN! NEVER WAS NEVER WILL BE!!!!
by Rob

I am finishing my PhD in Organic Chemistry; Materials Engineering have a Masters degree, a BS in Chemistry and more than 18 years of experience with polymers and have worked apriori as a lead plant chemist for plastics compounding facilities that handled a multitude of polymers including vinyl. Yes, it does have its place in our society for wire and cable, waste piping and some other areas BUT that is where it ends. Some automobile manufacturers, like Toyota, have removed it from the interiors of cars due to its outgassing of plasticizers and related materials added during compounding and molding. It is NOT a green process nor is it a green product - and Dr. Moore you are wrong for even suggesting that it is!...PERIOD. I am tired of everyone using the term "green" when someone is doing NOTHING more than trying to further their own greedy interests and continue their paydays - Dr. Moore!

The outgassing and by-products of manufacturing it alone would kill you where you stand...don't believe me??? Vinyl chloride monomer is a known carcinogen. Allow me to take you to a plant and you can inhale the emissions from the reactor for an hour and drink the hazardous waste that comes off of the process. Furthermore, you can get in the reactor and clean the tanks when they are done processing the PVC - with what?? Hazardous solvents...Oh...I almost forgot I will allow you to ingest the materials that are released not just at the process plant but also at the compounding facility that has to add items like tetrabasic lead fumurate and other antioxidants, flame retardants, plasticizers and synergists. By the way, once it is compounded it then has to be extruded AGAIN at the product manufacturing facility, which in turn releases additional chlorine and hazardous gases a THIRD time, which is typically vented to the atmosphere depending on production volume and emission requirements in the state that the business resides in. What about the >one half billion pounds of PVC (produced prior to the public knowing that lead was used in it as a stabilizer and that it leaches out of the polymer) that wasn't recycled properly and now lies in landfills?.... PVC degrades over time giving off the toxic additives including free radical chlorine from UV exposure from its polymer backbone, yellowing and eventually cracking which is magnified when the temps get below zero for any reasonable time. The majority of PVC from windows and siding doesn't get recycled in most cities and towns across the USA...it goes to the landfill where many builders send their waste. That's why the leachant from landfills and landfill fires are approximated to release > 1000 g per year of dioxins into the environment from incomplete combustion processes.

It is a matter of economics and costs that the contractors must apply to keep their businesses afloat. I applaud the efforts of those that do recycle it or attempt to but the truth is that it only looks good on paper and not in reality where most of us our grounded. It is simply less expensive to trash the window in the landfill than it is to dismantle it and recycle it. [Furthermore it is very hard to recycle something when you do not know what additives it contains because the PVC waste streams are co-mingled at the collection centers. This leads to the industry NOT being able to reuse recycled PVC materials in an effective manner since they can't control nor determine what each piece of recycled PVC contains.] That's why windows aren't carrying a $600 price tag for labor/installation on top of the window cost - no one charges the labor fee to tear down the old windows and recycle them. Furthermore, you say its safe for water lines??? It has been recognized for use in water lines as a CHLORINATED Poly-Vinyl Chloride or CPVC where they add additional chlorine to the backbone of the polymer through a free radical process post PVC polymerization. Although it is still banned for use in areas throughout the US currently and may have further restrictions or additional bans brought in the near future. The waste stream from making the monomer alone is not green nor environmentally friendly let alone another process that adds free radical chlorine to the polymer backbone! Moreover, why haven't ALL of the manufacturers moved to making plastic beverage bottles from PVC in lieu of PET copolymers and multi-layer bottles?? Why has negative attention been brought to bear on PVC blood bags that leach the plasticizers leading neonatal and ICU facilites to ban or consider a ban for use on high risk patients. Not considering a positive correlation between some asthma patients an their exposure to PVC plasticizers? Another item that you don't mention is that the additives, that are mixed into the PVC that provide its longevity to the weather exposure, undergo a process called "blooming" which is the movement or migration of the additives to the surface of the polymer...that includes plasticizers, antioxidants, brominated and chlorinated flame retardants, internal and external lubricants, synergists like antimony oxide compounds and related materials as well. It is WRONG when someone with a degree in ECOLOGY and NOT CHEMISTRY, professes something from an industry that they have NEVER worked in. Because you have worked in A does not make you an expert in area B so stop professing to "understand" and use your clout in a political manner to further increase your bank account by passing on part truths and misinformation to average consumers. It is completely unacceptable, unscientific and an unconscionable lie to have termed ANY type of vinyl chloride (vinyl) as "green". You have your merits in your area of expertise but you have just reached your level of incompetence in my area so get off the bandwagon reserved for those of us that know and understand the processes and the reality of the situation Dr. Moore. PVC has been rated on emissions, cradle to grave, as one of the worst offenders of the environment as a building material considering all factors of first production to landfilling/recycling by the USGBC. Have a look here: https://www.usgbc.org/ShowFile.aspx?DocumentID=2372. In other words, Dr. Moore is a complete liar and has made a scientific fool out of himself by even suggesting PVC is a green product. Nothing could be farther from the truth of the matter, period! That's not my opinion that's scientific FACT!


15.
Dec 14, 2010 11:59 PM ET

green tech
by thomas

interesting


16.
Aug 20, 2013 8:42 PM ET

uPVC
by David Hughes

Rob,

Thanks for posting that.

Do all of the same concerns that you mention apply to uPVC as well?

Also, could comment on the manufacturing processes associated with Fiber Cement, Fiberglass, Plywood, Paints, Sealers, etc. and other associated chemicals required for the preservation or more organic cladding materials?

Thanks.

DH


17.
Aug 21, 2013 4:00 AM ET

Response to David Hughes
by Martin Holladay

David,
There's a lot of nonsense bandied about in the vinyl window industry, and the much-ballyhooed advantages of "uPVC" over "PVC" is an example of nonsense. Vinyl is vinyl.

Of course, there are differences in the quality of vinyl lineals, but these days, these differences in quality have more to do with the thickness of the vinyl than the composition of the plastic.

Here's what Alex Wilson discovered when he researched the topic: "Plasticizers are not used in any American vinyl window extrusions and never have been. I do not believe there is any difference between uPVC and the PVC used in American windows. I asked two contacts in the vinyl industry about this a few months ago, and both were quite adamant about that. Phthalate plasticizers are widely used in flexible vinyl, including vinyl flooring, wire sheathing, and shower curtains -- where it can account for 40-50% of the total weight I think. Vinyl window extrusions and vinyl pipe do not require these plasticizers."

Your question concerning the environmental impacts of finishes and paints used to protect wood and fiber-cement products falls into the realm of an environmental life cycle analysis. Such analyses have been done, and they show no obvious reasons to avoid vinyl. For more information on this topic, see Vinyl Windows and Vinyl Siding.


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