PVC plastic’s environmental impact

(First published December 2007, updated January 2009)

Polyvinyl Chloride, more commonly known as PVC or just vinyl, has been in widespread usage since the early-mid 20th century.

PVC is strong, resistant to oil and chemicals, sunlight, weathering and flame resistant. It’s everywhere around us. PVC is an incredibly versatile material use in bottles, packaging, toys, construction materials, bedding, clothing, piping, wire coatings, imitation leather, furnishings and more.

PVC ranks the third in both global plastic output and consumption. Over 33 million tons of PVC is being produced each year and that figure is increasing annually. Around 57% of PVC’s mass is chlorine, so it requires less petroleum than many other polymers.

So, what’s the problem with PVC?

For starters, oil and chlorine aren’t what you’d call “green” substances in regards to their extraction, refining and by-products. So much of our modern life is based on oil that if production were to suddenly cease, it’s not just transport that would suffer – it would affect every aspect of our lives. We really need to kick our fossil fuel addiction before we are forced into withdrawals.

PVC’s durability is also its downfall environmentally speaking – it’s not biodegradable or degradable. Items made from PVC will retain their form for decades and the breakdown that occurs is just granulation – the pieces simply become smaller. Animals can ingest these pieces and the plastic can block their digestive tracts.

Greenpeace has pushed for the cessation of PVC production as dioxin is created from the manufacture and incineration of the substance. Dioxin is one of the most deadliest of man-made poisons and it’s a cumulative toxin, meaning it stays in the body for a long time, concentrating in food chains at the highest levels in carnivores – which includes us.

Substances called phthalates are added to PVC to make it flexible. Studies of animals show that some of these chemicals are may cause cancer, kidney and reproductive system damage. The disturbing part is that soft PVC is often used in toys for young children – and they just love putting things in their mouths. The phthalate issue is now such a concern, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced a series of actions.

It’s often reported that no other plastic presents such a direct environmental and human health threat as PVC does throughout its lifecycle; from manufacture to use to disposal – yet our demand is only increasing.

Recycling PVC

PVC is also difficult to recycle given the presence of additives including heavy metals such such as lead and cadmium; in fact it’s considered a contaminant in other recycling streams. Currently under 1% of PVC is recycled.

Identifying PVC?

Examine any plastic item you have around the house. If you see a ‘3’ or ‘V’ stamped into the plastic itself, it’s PVC. The 3 may also appear within a recycling symbol:

PVC aka Vinyl – look for the 3

I used to always think that the recycling symbol was a good sign, but as it turns out – not necessarily so. The number may not appear within the recycling logo, it may be beneath it, or the logo may not be present at all – the key easily discernible identification point is the number 3, or less commonly, V.

Unfortunately, stamping won’t always be present, so if you’re particularly concerned, contact the manufacturer – and while you’re at it, express your concerns about PVC as this is a good way to get the message upstream.

Alternatives to PVC

This is a tough one. Some new materials with most of the desirable properties of PVC, without the health and environmental concerns are now being produced. These degradable plastics are engineered to breakdown under landfill conditions (darkness, heat and moisture) within a few years without emitting toxic gases or other pollutants. At this point in time, these sorts of materials aren’t widely available and are quite expensive.

However, the more environmentally friendly materials that PVC originally replaced are still around. These are economical and widely available. For a list of PVC alternatives, check out this article on Greenpeace’s site – PVC Solutions.