Perkins + Will, HBN, Unravel the Myth of “Clean Vinyl”

Melissa Coffin - November 18, 2015

Today, the global architecture firm Perkins+WIll released a white paper, What's New (and What's Not) With PVC, which explores the current state of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), written in partnership with the Healthy Building Network. 
The vinyl industry has been on a new rebranding campaign: “clean-vinyl” [1] and “bio-vinyl” [2] are two examples of the trade names at the forefront of this campaign to position vinyl as a breakthrough and advanced green product. While some vinyl products have excluded problematic additives, these reformulations have not-and cannot-address the lifecycle hazards tied to PVC’s intrinsic chlorinated chemistry.
The white paper concludes that the fundamental hazards inherent in the chemistry of the material cannot be resolved: PVC remains a plastic based on chlorine chemistry. It will always require vinyl chloride monomer; produce dioxins during synthesis, accidental fires during use and in landfill disposal; and, it will continue to present a hazard to building occupants, firefighters, other first responders, and the local community during fires.
The Vinyl Institute, an industry association for the material, asserts that the industry has cleaned up pollution associated with the production of vinyl. However, our review of US Environmental Protection Agency Toxic Release Inventory data for US PVC plants reveals that dioxin creation is significantly higher than the Vinyl Institute claims. We found that in 2013, total on- and off-site releases of dioxin from PVC manufacturing were more than 1,000% higher than the amounts claimed by the Vinyl Institute. [3] Dioxins are highly potent carcinogens that persist in the environment for many years, and pose a significant hazard to communities around PVC plants. 
Further, imported PVC, the source for many building products on the market today, including vinyl flooring, often relies upon chlorine made by facilities that release mercury, an extremely toxic metal [4], into the surrounding communities and environment. The United Nations estimates that 100 chlorine plants across 44 countries are still using mercury cell technologies. [5]
The vinyl industry has been promoting the recyclability of PVC. Again, the industry’s assertions are belied by data: recycling rates remain very low (around 1%, at best) [6] and what is being recycled can contain toxic additives like phthalates and heavy metals - the very additives that many new new formulations have been designed to avoid. The recycling process therefore reintroduces these toxic additives to new vinyl products [7].
What’s New (and What’s Not) With PVC explains that PVC has been on Perkins+Will’s Precautionary List since 2008, “because the weight of the evidence at that time suggested precaution, and market evidence suggested that in virtually every product category there were materials available that were superior from an environmental and human health perspective.” Seven years later, Perkins+Will determined that, given the weight of the evidence gathered by HBN for this report, PVC should remain on its Precautionary List. HBN agrees. 

Footnotes
[1] Clean Vinyl Technology: A New Generation in Vinyl Wallcovering,” lentex-corp.com, http://www.lentexcorp.com/aboutcvt  (accessed October 7 2015).
[2] Introducing Biovinyl: Sustainable Flexibility, product data sheet, 2012, http://www.biovinyl.com/images_biovinyl/Introducing_BioVinyl_-_Sustainable_Flexibility_-_April%202012.pdf  
[3] In 2013, total on- and off-site releases spiked at 91.7 grams TEQ dioxin - far higher than the 6 to 8 grams of releases claimed in recent Vinyl Industry documents, including  Richard Krock and George Middleton, The Role of PVC Resins in Sustainable Designs, no date. Accessed October 9, 2015, http://vinylinfo.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Krock-Vinyl-Institute-The-Role-of-PVC-Resins-in-Sustainable-Design-SPE-Format-05-06-13-v7.pdf   All dioxins and furans (dioxin-like compounds) are toxic in very small quantities, but the different types have widely ranging toxicity factors varying by several orders of magnitude. The 2,3,7,8-TCDD molecule is the most potent of all the dioxins measured to date and is used as the baseline for comparison. Measurements of the varying mixtures of dioxin-like compounds released by different facilities are made comparable by use of a factor called Toxic Equivalency or TEQ, which compensates for the differences in relative potency.
[4] Mercury does not break down, but instead persists and accumulates in living organisms, including people.  Mercury is recognized as a reproductive and developmental toxicant, and has been associated with a host of other health hazards, including disruption of the body’s hormone systems.
[5] “Mercury Reduction in the Chlor-alkali Sector,” UNEP.org, http://www.unep.org/chemicalsandwaste/Default.aspx?tabid=3560
[6] An analysis by EPA based on 2010 data cited a recovery rate for PVC in municipal waste of 0% [US Environmental Protection Agency, WARM Version 12: Plastics [excerpt], February 2012, accessed October 14, 2015, http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/wycd/waste/downloads/Plastics.pdf. A 2011 analysis by Green Building Advisor based on production data from the Vinyl Institute concludes that approximately 0.33% of PVC used in building products is recycled. [Gibson, S. (August 25, 2011). “Job-Site Recycling: PVC” Blog post]. Green Building Advisor. Retrieved January 2015 from http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/green-buildingblog/job-site-recycling-pvc]
[7] HBN first reported these testing results in our April 2015 study, Post-Consumer Polyvinyl Chloride in Building Products. The contamination results from the global trade in PVC scrap, which is often recovered from the wire and cables from old computers and other electronics.  Also today, the Mind the Store Campaign, a project of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families announced that Lumber Liquidators ordered its suppliers to stop using recycled PVC scrap in its flooring based on its toxic contamination. Testing by the Ecology Center (Michigan) found that the reprocessed vinyl plastic is often contaminated with lead, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, phthalates and other toxic chemicals. In at least 69% of the floors’ inner layers tested from six major retailers, lead was present at elevated concentrations. In some cases lead concentrations exceeded an alarming 10,000 parts per million.

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