From Cradle to Grave, It’s the Worst Choice
The environmental, health, and social equity impacts of vinyl throughout its life cycle – from production to use to disposal – make it the worst plastic for the environment and the antithesis of a green building material.
Vinyl is the only plastic, and the only major building material, made from high volumes of chlorine – chlorine gas, that is. Thus there is an unfortunate domino effect tied to vinyl’s chlorine content (which in final products can exceed 50% by weight) that is not present in the life cycles of alternative materials. In fact, vinyl production requires consuming in excess of 40% of the chlorine gas produced in this country. That is the largest use of the gas in the world. By comparison, 5% of the nation’s chlorine gas is used to disinfect water – and that includes sewage treatment.
By itself, the extensive use of chlorine gas raises myriad concerns. Antiterrorism experts cited in an article published in 2002 by The Washington Post say there is “little doubt that [production] plants storing large amounts of chlorine and other toxic chemicals are potential terrorist targets.” These chemicals are even bigger liabilities while in transit, as the Wall Street Journal showed by following graffiti artists as they “tagged” chlorine tank cars within sight of the U.S. Capitol building, long after 9-11.
Vinyl production generates another set of issues. Among the most important by-products of the PVC life cycle are dioxin, ethylene dichloride (EDC), and vinyl chloride monomer(VCM). The formation of dioxin – a nondegradable organic compound that is one of the most potent carcinogens known to science (there is no “safe” dose) and one to which every American is exposed – is a direct consequence of vinyl’s chlorine content. Dioxin compounds are never manufactured intentionally but are produced accidentally whenever chlorine gas is used or chlorine-based organic chemicals are burned or processed under reactive conditions.
Formation of dioxins has been documented in production of chlorine, synthesis of other vinyl feedstocks, burning of vinyl products in accidental fires, incineration of hazardous wastes from vinyl production, and perhaps most surprisingly, by fires in landfills containing vinyl solid waste. When its entire life cycle is considered, vinyl appears to be associated with more dioxin formation than any other single product.
Vinyl’s other major chemical components – EDC and VCM – have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. VCM is classified as a known human carcinogen, and EDC is a probable human carcinogen. Hazardous by-products are formed throughout the PVC life cycle. At numerous points in the vinyl life cycle, very large quantities of hazardous organochlorine by-products are formed accidentally and released into the environment.
Not surprisingly, VCM production facilities are major polluters. The feedstocks, additives, and by-products produced and released during the life cycle of PVC have been shown to cause a range of health problems, in some cases at extremely low doses. These problems include:
• Disruption of the endocrine system
• Reproductive impairment
• Impaired child development and birth defects
• Neurotoxicity (damage to the brain or its function)
• Immune system suppression.
Severe contamination of communities and waterways in the vicinity of VCM production facilities has been documented. In Louisiana, for example, significantly elevated levels of dioxins have been found in the blood of people living near a VCM facility, several communities have been evacuated due to VCM contamination of groundwater, and extremely high levels of highly persistent, bioaccumulative by-products attributable to VCM production have been found in local waterways.
In its pure form, PVC is rigid and brittle. To make flexible vinyl products, such as roofing materials, floor tiles, and wall coverings, plasticizers must be added to PVC in large quantities. These plasticizers may constitute up to 60 percent of the final product by weight. The dominant group of plasticizers used in vinyl is a class of compounds called phthalates – esters of phthalic acid that pose considerable health and environmental hazards, including increased risk of cancer, asthma, reproductive damage, and obesity.
Vinyl is the only major building material in which phthalates are used extensively, and it accounts for about 90 percent of total phthalate consumption. Phthalates are not chemically bonded to the plastic but are merely mixed with the polymer during formulation. They therefore migrate out of the plastic over time into air, water, or other substances with which vinyl comes in contact. Phthalate levels in indoor air in buildings with PVC are typically many times higher than in outdoor air. Phthalate accumulation in suspended and sedimented indoor dusts is particularly high, with concentrations in dust as high as 1,000 parts per million.
Because phthalates are semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), not volatile organic compounds (VOCs), they are not accounted for in most indoor air quality (IAQ) tests, which focus only on VOCs. Thus, vinyl products can obtain IAQ certifications even though they leach phthalates, whose contributions to reproductive-system impairment include infertility, testicular damage, reduced sperm count, suppressed ovulation, and abnormal development and function of the testes and male reproductive tract in laboratory animals. They are known carcinogens in laboratory animals.
Finally, large quantities of vinyl are burned in accidental building fires, which release significant amounts of dioxin into the air and into whatever water is used by emergency services to contain the fire. Obviously unintentional fires release many chemicals and gases. But the dioxins they release could be drastically reduced by the replacement of vinyl building products with non-chlorinated materials.
Most PVC products eventually end up in landfills. Given that there are an estimated 8,000 landfill fires every year, the chances of PVC products burning after disposal are higher than you might think. The worst dioxin releases, it turns out, are from these uncontrolled fires, making them one of the largest contributors of carcinogenic dioxin to our environment, and making PVC the largest factor in those releases. After an exhaustive analysis, the U.S. Green Building Council concluded, “When we add end of life with accidental landfill fires and backyard burning, the additional risk of dioxin emissions puts PVC consistently among the worst materials for human health impacts .”
Most PVC is thrown away because it is extremely difficult to recycle. This situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Because each PVC product contains a unique mix of additives, post-consumer recycling of mixed PVC products is difficult and cannot yield vinyl products with qualities equivalent to the original. PVC products impede municipal plastics recycling, fouling the production lines of other plastics recycling operations, leading plastics recyclers to describe vinyl as a contaminant. Even after 20 years of effort in the U.S., the PVC industry has been unable to establish a credible recycling program or reduce net production of virgin PVC.
Despite all of these negatives, there remains some confusion about whether or not vinyl is a green building material because some building products containing vinyl are qualified for LEED credits. But those credits typically reward attributes that have nothing to do with the toxicity of the vinyl in the product. Vinyl roofing membranes get an energy efficiency credit because they are white and reflective, just like other roofing membranes. Vinyl windows, like many windows, may earn energy efficiency credits because of the properties of the window glass. But the vinyl itself is not a green building material, and in fact the state of New York denied vinyl flooring a green building tax credit in 2003 because the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation determined that the material offered no unique environmental benefits.
The question of vinyl’s suitability as a green material also persists because vinyl-product manufacturers and trade groups have falsely created the impression that there is a raging “debate” about whether or not vinyl is eco-friendly. But one searches in vain for anyone who champions vinyl as a green building product who does not have an interest in the industry.
After careful investigations of vinyl’s properties and the costs and methods used to produce and dispose of it, organizations as diverse as Kaiser Permanente health care, Apple, Whole Foods Market, and Wal-Mart Stores have committed to phase out vinyl. Firestone Building Products stopped offering vinyl products, citing environmental concerns, even thought they were a profitable product line, and Forbo Flooring calls vinyl an unsustainable product – even though the company still sells it in Europe!
So, does vinyl belong in a green home? Only if it’s already there, since there is no ecologically sustainable way to deal with the waste!
Read an opposing view: Vinyl is Green