A Conversation with Michael Braungart: On Science, Creativity, Pride & PVC

Bill Walsh - February 7, 2005

Michael Braungart"The PVC controversy is the normal abuse of science we have seen with tobacco, asbestos, wood preservatives, pesticides...Innovative companies are getting this now, too. I don't know one innovative company that is not eliminating PVC. Not one. They want to be proud of their work."[1]

HBN: The USGBC has just released a draft report on PVC. It advertises itself as unprecedented, possibly the most rigorous scientific materials analysis ever performed.

MB: No. This is neither rigorous science, nor an unprecedented report. The quality of the work is actually quite poor. The analysis is not even consistent with the claimed methodology. Key components are missing. It is common knowledge, for example, that PVC needs high quantities of lead as a stabilizer, but not one word in the report about lead, nor about organotin compounds. Tons of mercury from chlorine plants - not factored. Our institute is preparing scientific comments, but the real point is that the report is not based on science.[2] It makes us all sorry to see this kind of "expertise" at work, especially when the debate around PVC really just comes down to common sense. I found the report to be one of the most unintelligent abuses of science in the history of the environmental movement, though not unique.

HBN: Not unique?

MB: It is the normal abuse of science we have seen with tobacco, asbestos, wood preservatives, pesticides. Silent Spring was written a generation ago and there is still debate about persistent and bioaccumulative pesticides.[3] The manufacturers fund universities to conduct controversial research. So long as there is controversial research, there is not enough evidence to justify any action. There is no liability problem, and the researchers are kept happy. It is a toxic coalition in every sense of the word. Everyone knows this. The emperor walks without clothes.

HBN: As the story goes, the emperor was embarrassed, but the society survived.

MB: When you corrupt your scientific thinking, you destroy your creativity. We lost two generations of talented and creative scientists because things like Seveso, Bhopal, Agent Orange and Chernobyl embarrassed chemistry, and the young people didn't want to be a part of that. People who would have otherwise been brilliant scientists got their MBA instead. The new generation of scientists comes after this trauma. They want to do good science, to be proud of their work and, most of all, they just don't want to be stupid. Innovative companies are getting this now, too. I don't know one innovative company that is not eliminating PVC. Not one. They want to be proud of their work.

HBN: Others have said similar things to me, and suggested that since the market is changing, LEED is not that important in this case; we should put our energies elsewhere. But I think LEED is worth fighting for.

MB: Just don't lose your creative energy in the process. This will stand as a mistake in LEED. But people understand the dilemma, in that LEED is in an interim stage. I celebrate the USGBC for pioneering LEED, which really helps people to understand materials flows. But the USGBC, so full of creative potential, is stuck in a traditional linear view of material flows. They are a community of people who really want to make a change. The draft report on PVC does not seem consistent with the good intentions of these designers and architects.

HBN: For the record, what should people know about PVC?

MB: I started studying PVC in 1982, as a student. PVC is neither a biological nor technical nutrient. It is a toxic nightmare. The essential problem lies in the history of PVC. It is a toxic waste disposal strategy for chlorine waste generated at a rate of about 50/50 to the production of sodium hydroxide: caustic soda. It costs five times more to dispose of this waste than to manufacture PVC. It socializes the risk and privatizes the profit. You have a common plastic that is unique only because it is more than 50% chlorine by weight, cheaply and conveniently dispersing that toxic waste. That chlorine does not go away. It still causes huge toxic problems for society. This is chemical harassment.

The consequences of fires alone should be enough for green architects to reject the product: concentrated hydrochloric acid and dioxin unique to the chlorine in the plastic. Architects might conduct a simple experiment. Place equal amounts of wood, PVC window frames and cement siding in your fireplace. Watch what happens. Make your choice. The USGBC has a simple decision. Can PVC be disposed of without causing problems? No. Can it be burned without a dozen filters? No. Is there any real system to take it back, aside from some alibi schemes? No. Should PVC be a LEED-accepted building material? No.

HBN: Finally, will you be speaking at EnvironDesign9 this year?

MB: Yes. I will be there, and will have more to say about this then.


Make Your Voice Heard at the USGBC

The public has until February 15 to comment on the USGBC's draft report on PVC. The draft report fails to address key environmental health priorities and threatens to undermine progress made toward reducing PVC use by governments, green building professionals, and manufacturers.

Check out HBN's action points on the draft report at http://www.healthybuilding.net/pvc/usgbc_comments.html or download its nine-page analysis at http://www.healthybuilding.net/pvc/offtrack_usgbc_briefing.pdf. And send your comments to tsac@committees.usgbc.org today!

The Chlorine-Mercury Connection

While concern for mercury pollution is increasing, most people are unaware that the chlorine industry produces a major and completely preventable contribution to the global mercury crisis, according to Oceana, a non-profit organization.

Read Oceana's new report "Poison Plants: A Report on the Chlorine Industry" http://www.oceana.org/mercury/report.html

See the Christian Science Monitor report on the chlorine-mercury connection, "Chlorine dilemma: clean pool, dirty air" http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0203/p14s01-sten.html


[1] Dr. Michael Braungart is unquestionably one of the most qualified people in the world to discuss the nexus of green building, materials analyses, and PVC plastic. A chemist, he has been studying PVC since 1982. In 2002, he co-authored, with William McDonough, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which Professor David Suzuki called "a groundbreaking book that should be the Bible for the Second Industrial Revolution." Braungart is co-founder of MBDC (McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry), a visiting professor at the Darden School of Business, and a professor of Process Engineering at the University of Applied in Sciences in Suderburg, Germany. His many accolades include US EPA's Green Chemistry Award (2003) and the Utne Visionary Award (1995). Reached at his home in Germany, Braungart was characteristically frank and optimistic during a wide-ranging conversation.

[2] See MBDC's comments on the draft PVC report submitted to the USGBC TSAC group on HBN's website at http://www.healthybuilding.net/pvc/tsac/TSAC_CmntF-MBDC-final.pdf

[3] Editor's note: The debate over the USDA Organic food label offers interesting insight into the debate over green building materials. See "Will The US Green Building Movement Go Organic? The USDA Organic Label Provides Food For Thought," Healthy Building News, December 9, 2004

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