More Vinyl Greenwash

Bill Walsh - June 6, 2014

The replacement of harmful phthalate plasticizers in a growing array of vinyl products is fueling a new rebranding campaign in the vinyl industry. Clean-vinyl and Bio-vinyl are a few of the trade names at the forefront of this campaign to position phthalate-free vinyl as a breakthrough and advanced green product. HBN’s in-depth evaluation of the new phthalate-free formulations reveals that these claims are more than mere overstatements. They’re more greenwash from the vinyl industry.

As I wrote last week, our evaluation concludes that the removal of phthalates from vinyl products is a good thing.[1] However, even when viewed in their most positive light, the various reformulations of vinyl have not created a clean vinyl. To the contrary, these modifications underscore the essential problem with vinyl itself — chlorine chemistry.

Phthalate plasticizers are needed because the polymer known as vinyl, chlorine-based PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic[2], is rigid and brittle in its pure form. Removing this additive - something that alternatives to vinyl never used in the first place - is far from being a breakthrough or advancement in building products. When it comes to avoiding harmful phthalates, vinyl is playing catch-up.

The vinyl industry is also unlikely to catch up in the development of truly bio-based plastics. Advances in producing polyethylene from sugar cane have resulted in products such as Carnegie Fabric’s Bio-Based Xorel wall covering, a competitor to vinyl which boasts 60-85% plant-based content (third party certified through OKBiobased by Vincotte). In contrast, BioVinyl is still made from fossil fuel derived ethylene chloride and highly toxic chlorine gas. Some of the phthalate replacements now being used are bio-based[3], but only the plasticizer component is bio-based and, as seen in PVC flooring, typically doesn’t contribute more than 25% bio-based content.

Even if sugar-cane-derived ethylene could be substituted for fossil fuel derived ethylene in PVC, the high chlorine content of this plastic will continue to be the source of serious environmental health concerns throughout its lifecycle. As one “biobased enthusiast” wrote: “To make PVC, the poison plastic, add two carcinogens, pump the resin full of toxic additives and leave a trail of chlorinated waste from production and disposal. Replacing the petroleum in PVC with renewable carbon hardly greens its lifecycle.”[4] The weight of evidence suggests that other choices, such as linoleum and bio-based polyethylene, remain superior options to PVC from an environmental and human health perspective.[5]

The fundamental problem is that the high amount of chlorine that is essential and unique to the production of vinyl is the precursor to a range of unavoidable negative environmental and human health impacts throughout its lifecycle, including unavoidable releases of dioxin. These were detailed in our exhaustive analysis of PVC building products, and recently reaffirmed in the February 2014 feature article in Environmental Building News. In short, nothing has changed the conclusions of the USGBC Technical Science Advisory Committee (TSAC) Report, which found that with a proper accounting of the human health impacts of PVC across its lifecycle, including disposal issues and occupational exposure, “the additional risk of dioxin emissions puts PVC consistently among the worst materials for human health impacts....”[6]

Footnotes

[1] Removing phthalates from vinyl will reduce human exposure to avoidable chemical hazards. It demonstrates that customers who take a precautionary approach to avoidable chemical hazards can drive positive innovation even in a mature product area such as vinyl. It suggests that had the chemical and plastics industries embraced the precautionary approach, rather than fight it for nearly a decade, we could have accelerated this innovation and reduced avoidable hazards for more people on a faster timeline. Our ability to evaluate many of the replacement plasticizers illustrates the benefits of transparency and disclosure to consumers and manufacturers alike.

[2] Although not all plastics with “vinyl” in the name are PVC. See “Sorting out the Vinyls - When is ‘Vinyl’ not PVC?”

[3] HBN’s in-depth evaluation identified three bio-based plasticizers currently used in PVC building products such as floor coverings.

[5] HBN’s collaborative study of resilient floorings in 2009 found that linoleum scored better than PVC for most of its lifecycle. Report available at: http://www.healthybuilding.net/uploads/files/resilient-flooring-chemical-hazards-a-comparative-analysis-of-vinyl-and-other-alternatives-for-health-care.pdf. Appendix A of that report also reviews other comparative studies, many of which also found linoleum flooring to have a preferable lifecycle to PVC flooring. Additionally, testing done by HealthyStuff.org in 2009 found linoleum flooring to be free of hazardous phthalates and heavy metals while detecting them in PVC flooring and wallcoverings: http://pharosproject.net/blog/detail/id/79/chemicals-of-concern-found-in-floorings-wallcoverings. Bio-based polyethylene wall coverings by Carnegie Fabrics are Cradle to Cradle Gold certified, have a manufacturer take-back program, and have been found to be red-list free by Declare.

[6] Assessment of the Technical Basis for a PVC Related Materials Credit for LEED, February 2007. p. 88, line 24. http://www.usgbc.org/Docs/Archive/General/Docs2372.pdf


Tags: none