A decision to make no definite decision on PVC use in construction may be a victory of sorts for PVC makers, say some industry officials.
The Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee of the U.S. Green Building Council released its final report Feb. 26 on PVC use in construction.
The advisory committee told USGBC that its LEED Green Building Rating System should consider an approach that grants credits based on issues, rather than focus on positive or negative credits for specific materials.
The committee spent six years studying more than 2,400 documents to determine whether there should be a negative credit imposed on builders that use PVC in construction.
``It became clear to us that there was a need for more data and that a simple yes or no was not useful and didn't reflect the full scope of the facts - which were that the issue needs to be viewed in a larger context,'' said committee Chairman Malcolm Lewis.
``We would recommend that LEED have issue-based credits rather than material-based credits, that there be more emphasis on [reducing] pollutants than specific materials and that they create incentives for continuous improvements of materials and for reducing toxic wastes.''
The report now goes to the LEED steering committee, which hopes to have suggestions for the board by the end of April.
This is the second time the committee rejected the idea that LEED credits be given to builders that avoid the use of PVC. Construction accounts for 76 percent of all PVC used in the United States, according to the Vinyl Institute, based in Arlington, Va.
``We are gratified by their effort to put this in a larger context,'' said Allen Blakey, VI public affairs director. ``We are glad that they have opted for a second time to say that there is no justification to say that PVC doesn't belong in green buildings.
``It is hard to make clear sense of what they are doing. But we think it is beneficial in further clarifying that to make a blanket decision to award a material credit is wrong. We think they are on the right course.''
The lengthy committee report said there are too many gaps in the data and the idea that PVC is ``worse'' than other building materials needs to be viewed in a broader context. The right decision varies by application and how different environmental impact, human health and end-of-life factors are weighted.
``We are dealing with uncertainty about a lot of data and dealing with a lot of data gaps,'' particularly with regard to alternative materials to PVC, Lewis said. ``So we have decided to be guided by the precautionary principle and err on the side of caution. Our hope is that industry and future research will fill in the gaps so that we can make better analytical decisions.''
The committee studied the four biggest uses of PVC in construction: siding, window frames, resilient flooring and drain, waste and vent pipe. As the report pointed out, in some cases, PVC's environmental performance is better than alternative materials; in some cases, worse. When end-of-life and occupational health impacts are added, it is consistently worst among the materials studied, said the report, but added that the data was minimal for PVC and sometimes not available for competing materials.
The evidence indicates a credit that rewards companies for not using PVC could steer decision-makers toward using materials that are worse on most environmental impacts, said the report.
``We need to avoid the blunt-instrument problem of materials-based credits that inadvertently steer decision-makers to replace one material with another'' that could be as bad or worse, said the report.
``Instead [we should] create an ongoing market incentive for continuous development, improvement of building materials and achieving long-term goals for reducing toxicants.''
Despite the exhaustive and lengthy nature of the panel's work - which included public hearings, comments and a previous draft report issued in December 2004, a couple of notable gaps in its effort were pointed out at a meeting of stakeholders.
First, there was no research or data on the end-of-life recycling of the materials studied, and no credence was given to the benefits of materials studied in terms of their use of energy, their ability to conserve natural resources, their durability or physical properties. All the competing materials were not studied.
In addition, despite a lack of data, the report called attention to the potential dangers of dioxin emissions if PVC were accidentally burned in landfills. Such fires are a relatively rare occurrence that other government agencies have dismissed as insignificant, said Blakey.
``It is a lot of malarkey to say that vinyl is a big contributor to dioxins.''
With conflicting data in many areas, data gaps and differences among stakeholders, Lewis emphasized the need for USGBC to find ``a better way to make more meaningful decisions,'' regarding PVC and other materials.
He also said the steering committee and the board will have to deal with how to weigh different environmental and health concerns and end-of-life issues.
``Whether PVC is worse depends on where you focus,'' Lewis said. ``You get different metrics depending on what values you choose and how you weigh them.''