A June 27 Perspective column [“Failed agenda returns as HBN,” Page 6] lambasted the Healthy Building Network, Greenpeace and presumably all of the other nonprofit groups, not to mention corporations, committed to the elimination of PVC plastic, urging us to “come clean about the science of healthy building.” Where does one begin?
In its very next issue, Plastics News reported that the global office environments company Steelcase announced its intention to be “PVC-free” by 2012. The Steelcase announcement follows a similar commitment by one of its chief worldwide competitors, Herman-Miller, which introduced the PVC-free Mirra chair last year. Berkshire-Hathaway-owned Shaw Carpet ended its use of PVC in 2004 as well, joining rival Milliken as leading brand-name providers of PVC-free carpets.
Firestone Building Products announced it will phase out an estimated 6,000 tons annually of PVC membrane roof offerings this year because thermoplastic polyolefin “supports our overall company strategy to manufacture environmentally responsible commercial roofing products.”
Even more companies now aggressively market PVC-free alternatives to health-conscious commercial buyers, such as Kaiser-Permanente. Carpet maker Collins & Aikman, window treatment brands Nysan, Lutron and Mecho, and two of the largest wall-protection manufacturers (Construction Specialties and InPro) released new PVC-free products in the last year in response to Kaiser's “PVC-free challenge.”
And it's not just building materials. PVC is increasingly a liability for brand-sensitive products, which is why the Web site of a high-profile shoe manufacturer states, “We're working aggressively to chase PVC from Nike branded footwear product. ... [and] removed materials containing PVC from our approved material list.”
Resin makers fail their obligations to shareholders, to customers and to society when they insist that no plastic is any better or worse, ecologically speaking, than another.
They know that to be absurd on its face, as the drumbeat of bad news on PVC makes clear on a routine basis.
Take phthalates, the plasticizer virtually unique to PVC plastic, which consumes more than 90 percent of all phthalates manufactured. On July 5, the European Parliament voted to permanently ban the use of a group of phthalate plasticizers used to soften vinyl children's toys due to health concerns.
One study demonstrates a highly significant relationship between a mother's exposure during pregnancy to phthalates and changes in the ways that baby boys' genitals develop, including smaller penis size and incomplete testicular descent.
The European Commission also announced it will review the use of phthalates in other products, in particular medical devices. They should. A June 2005 study by Harvard University scientists found that babies in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) receiving intensive therapy with PVC medical devices, such as IV bags and tubing, were exposed to a phthalate at very high levels — an average of 25 times higher than the general population and up to 50 times higher for the most exposed. As their medical treatments intensified, sick infants were exposed to progressively higher exposures.
The ecological legacy of The Graduate generation is enough of an embarrassment without rallying the troops to defend PVC, the most indefensible of them all. Plastic is the fastest-growing part of the waste stream, and by far the most expensive for financially strapped cities to manage. Most of the marine debris in the world is comprised of plastic materials. In many regions, plastic materials constitute as much as 90-95 percent of the total amount of marine debris. The mass of plastic pieces in the ocean has been measured to exceed that of zooplankton, the first animal link in the marine food chain.
Plastics recycling, meanwhile, is almost an oxymoron. A 1996 study actually linked the promotion of plastics recycling to an increase in the production of virgin resin. The most recycled plastics are high density polyethylene, low density PE and PET. Their combined recycling rate is 8 percent. The recycling rate for PVC and all other plastics combined is less than 3 percent, despite 20 years of industry promises and “pilot” programs. Citing these failures, the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers declared PVC a “contaminant” to bottle recycling in 1998.
Two days after Plastics News published a name-calling diatribe against the Healthy Building Network, we released our new “Guide to Plastic Lumber.” Not surprisingly, we are of the view that 100 percent recycled PE plastic lumber is ecologically superior to the 100 percent virgin vinyl products. There I wrote: “Phasing out the worst plastics, halting the indiscriminate use of plastics — especially in nondurable goods — increasing the societal commitment to mandatory plastics recycling, and increasing investment in bio-based plastics hold out the prospect that some plastics may have a role in a sustainable economy … recycled plastic could play a role in reducing demand for virgin plastic resin and the volume of plastic waste.”
Most people would consider that neither alarmist nor extremist; it's just common sense.
Bill Walsh is national coordinator for the Healthy Building Network, based in Eugene, Ore.