(Aug. 9, 2004) — Later this summer, the vinyl industry expects to get its first environmental “report card” from the U.S. Green Building Council.
GBC's actions will be closely watched by industry, environmentalists, governments and green builders, who are hoping for answers on whether the council considers PVC an environmental bad guy.
Some green architects are already making predictions: designer Jason McLennan, author of the new book The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, predicts the green building movement will abandon vinyl within a decade.
I don't claim to have a crystal ball on that. But those looking for answers are paying attention to a report released earlier this summer by the European Union, which looked at 30-plus studies assessing PVC's environmental impact compared to other materials. EU wanted the report to help it develop a policy on PVC.
The report's short answer: It ain't simple.
The EU report said vinyl is really no better and no worse than other materials. It said PVC has to be evaluated application-by-application over the entire life of the product, not pronounced good or bad as a material. On specific applications, the report did not come to any firm conclusions.
For windows, it said that none of the studies revealed an obvious “winner” among PVC, wood, and various plastics and metals.
For pipe, EU said some studies showed clear advantages for cement, some for PVC and polyethylene. For flooring, it found that linoleum might have advantages in production, but PVC fares better in the use phase. In short, the report's bottom line was that PVC is like everything else: “PVC does not play an especially significant role as a material, from a [life-cycle analysis] viewpoint. It has individual environmental advantages and disadvantages, as do other polymers, metals or renewable materials. ... There seems to be no reason why PVC should be treated differently than other materials.”
That was enough to win praise from the PVC industry.
But the report won't end the debate. Some critics said its inability to resolve or evaluate some of the differences between various studies is a weakness.
Groups like Greenpeace and the Healthy Building Network challenged the report, saying it gives short shrift to complaints about PVC's toxicity. (The PVC industry, for its part, said the report relied on outdated health information.)
By the report's own admission, its LCA model is not a good tool for looking at those health risks. And that's where opponents of PVC make part of their case, that chlorinated plastics like PVC contribute to dioxin formation, and that working in and living near PVC plants exposes people to higher levels of carcinogens.
The report also puts in a plug for boosting recycling, which is an area where the North American PVC industry really does lag its European counterparts.
I'm not expert enough to predict how GBC will address the complexities of this. But the European report makes clear that saying whether vinyl is green is far from black and white.
Steve Toloken is a Washington-based reporter for Plastics News.