Embattled PVC took a double hit to the chin recently — one a clean shot from a major user that vinyl supporters should have seen coming, the other an unfortunate cheap shot from the governor of New York.
Plastics News reported the developments in two front-page stories Dec. 17. In the first, medical products giant Baxter International Inc. revealed it has made significant progress in its effort to replace PVC in intravenous bags with a material it claims is performance- and cost-competitive with vinyl in large-scale production. Baxter received a patent July 17 for a multilayer polymer film it claims is cost-effective and phthalate-free, and can be sealed using radio frequency waves.
Deerfield, Ill.-based Baxter believes IV bags made of the material could hit the market in five to 10 years, pending governmental approvals — in line with its announced goal to phase out PVC from certain applications in the United States and Europe by 2010.
That development no doubt will please vinyl's outspoken critics such as Health Care Without Harm, which would like to see PVC relegated to the manufacturing scrap heap because of possible negative health and environmental effects. Still, major users such as Baxter until now have had to admit that no other material can do the job as well as PVC.
It's true that some U.S. government studies have found problems with the amount of phthalates to which certain vulnerable populations, such as sick infants, are exposed via vinyl. But even so, numerous scientific studies and government agencies do not see merit in widespread phasing out of PVC, either to cut down on dioxin emissions or to reduce phthalate exposure.
Still, this war — like most such materials skirmishes — will be won on the commercial battlefield. If anyone can deliver a cost-competitive alternative material that performs as effectively as PVC and passes regulatory muster, then publicly owned companies such as Baxter obviously will choose to sidestep the negative publicity and wasted energy spent defending vinyl. That is the essence of free enterprise. Let necessity again be the mother of invention, and may the better material win.
Unfortunately, such consideration of a material's performance did not factor into another recent decision. Rather, politics — not science, economics or free enterprise — won the day when New York Gov. George Pataki signed legislation Nov. 28 that prevents plastic pipe from being used for the next three years in many of the state's residential buildings larger than two units and in all commercial construction. Simply stated, the governor caved in to pressure from New York's powerful plumbers' unions, which generally prefer more-expensive copper and cast-iron pipe that also is significantly more costly to install.
As reported, Pataki basically ignored the advice of the state's own technical experts, the Fire Prevention and Building Code Council, which invested years studying the issue. He also rejected strong advice from such bodies as the New York State Builders Association, which advocates the adoption of plastics-friendly plumbing codes that would have brought New York into line with much of the rest of the country.
Meanwhile, in the wake of this political loss, the plastics proponents are busy sniping at each other in the blame game. The state builders association blames the American Plastics Council lobbyists for a half-baked effort, while APC says it was fully active and engaged to the bitter end. Regardless, the bottom line is that the unions obviously packed greater clout in the state capitol.
Unfortunately, plastic pipe suppliers are not the only losers in this political tug of war. Joe Public loses, too. The builders association estimates that using copper or cast-iron pipe instead of PVC will cost $3,000 more per two-bathroom unit of housing, or about $45 million a year in higher state housing costs. The governor chose to take cover behind anti-PVC fire and safety arguments advanced by Greenpeace and others to justify a politically expedient but commercially wrong-headed decision.
In this case, the better material lost.