What does “eco friendly” vinyl mean?

28 01 2014

Polyvinyl chloride – PVC – is the most toxic plastic for our health and it’s not so good for the environment either.  First, it’s made from petroleum, one of our scarce natural resources.   Globally, over 50% of PVC manufactured is used in construction, in products such as pipelines, wiring, siding, flooring and wallpaper – as well as a host of other products, including fabrics.   As a building material PVC is cheap, easy to install and easy to replace. PVC is replacing ‘traditional’ building materials such as wood, concrete and clay in many areas. Although it appears to be the ideal building material, PVC has high environmental and human health costs that its manufacturers fail to tell consumers.

From its manufacture to its disposal, PVC emits toxic compounds. During the manufacture of the building block ingredients of PVC (such as the vinyl chloride monomer) dioxin and other persistent pollutants are emitted into the air, water and land, which present both acute and chronic health hazards. During use, PVC products can leach toxic additives, for example flooring can release softeners called phthalates. When PVC reaches the end of its useful life,  it cannot be recycled, so it must either  be landfilled, where it leaches toxic additives, or incinerated, again emitting dioxin and heavy metals. When PVC burns in accidental fires, hydrogen chloride gas and dioxin are formed.

No other plastic contains or releases as many dangerous chemicals. There’s no safe way to manufacture, use or dispose of PVC products.

eco-friendly_vinyl-459x459 copyAnd yet we see the advertisement of “eco friendly” vinyl.  What does it mean?

Vinyl is commonly used as a shorthand name for PVC.  Usually, when a product is referred to as “vinyl,” it is comprised primarily of PVC. Occasionally it also may refer to polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) a closely related compound, which is used in food wraps (‘Saran’) and other films.  This product shares most of the same environmental health problems with PVC.

In chemistry, however, the term “vinyl’ actually has a broader meaning, encompassing a range of different thermoplastic chemical compounds derived from ethylene. In addition to PVC, “vinyls” in building materials also include:

  1. ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), used in films, wire coating and adhesives
  2. polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA) a copolymer of polyethylene and EVA used in shower curtains, body bags
  3. polyvinyl acetate (PVA), used in paints and adhesives, such as white glue, and
  4. polyvinyl butyral (PVB), used in safety glass films.

What makes PVC different from the other vinyls is the addition of a chlorine molecule (The “C” in PVC and PVDC stands for chlorine).  Chlorine is the source of many of the concerns with PVC, such as the generation of dioxin, a highly carcinogenic chemical produced in both the manufacture and disposal of PVC. Due to its persistent and bioaccumulative nature (it travels long distances without breaking down and concentrates as it moves up the food chain to humans) dioxin has become a global problem and an international treaty – the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) – now prioritizes the elimination of processes that produce dioxin.

Some of the non-chlorinated vinyls (EVA, PEVA, PVA and PVB) are now beginning to be used as direct substitutes for PVC. EVA has been in use for several years as a chlorine free substitute for PVC – primarily in non building materials like toys and athletic shoes, but occasionally as a protective film or binder. In the building industry, post-consumer recycled PVB is now beginning to be used to replace PVC in carpet backing. Absence of chlorine alone does not make these other vinyls the final answer in the search for green polymers. There are still plenty of toxic challenges and untested chemicals in the life cycle of any petrochemical product. As is the case with most other polymers competing with PVC, however, the weight of available evidence indicates that the absence of chlorine in the formula will generally render the lifecycle environmental health impacts of PVB and the other vinyls less harmful than PVC – and initial study is bearing this out. Like the polyolefin plastics, the use of PVB and the other non-chlorinated vinyls represents a step forward in the search for alternatives to PVC.

In summary, with the exception of paints, glues and certain films, “vinyl” as a product description almost always means made of PVC. The term vinyl in ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA), polyvinyl acetate (PVA), and polyvinyl butyral (PVB), however, does not refer to PVC and does not raise the same concerns associated with chlorinated molecules like PVC.

When in doubt about the use of the term “vinyl”, ask if it is PVC.

For virtually all PVC applications, safer alternatives exist, using more sustainable, traditional materials – such as paper, wood or local materials. PVC can also be replaced by a variety of other, less environmentally damaging plastics, although most plastics pose some risk to the environment and contribute to the global waste crisis.

SMART Sustainable Standards

17 08 2011

The SMART Sustainable Product Standards  is a group of standards, applicable to building materials, apparel, textiles and flooring. These products constitute 60% of the world’s products, according to the SMART website .  The SMART standards for these products are, again according to their website, “based on transparency, using consensus based metrics and life-cycle analysis.”  The term “consensus based metrics”  means that the standards they use have been pre-established, and are widely available, thereby “eliminating both redundancies and potential inconsistencies”.  Some of these include:

SMART contends that, by using these widely accepted standards, SMART  standards become transparent, i.e.,  nothing is hidden in their requirements or in their decision making.   They further contend that  their rules  prevent industry trade association dominance, allowing the SMART standard to move substantially beyond the status quo.

The SMART Standard confers multiple achievement levels – depending on the number of points a product accrues in the rating system, it can be certified either:

  • Sustainable
  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Platinum

This all sounds lovely, but in sieving through the SMART website, I found it extremely confusing.     It also seems to me the web site is designed for large companies with deep pockets – the first question in their INFO/FAQ tab on the website answers the question:  “Why are sustainable products more profitable than conventional products?”  The answer:

  1. The public prefers sustainable products and will pay somewhat more for them
  2. coupled with the assertion that  sustainable products have “cheaper raw materials”  (I can certainly dispute that in the field of natural fibers – organic cotton simply costs more to produce, sometimes considerably more, than conventional cotton), “less liability” and “fewer regulatory constraints”.

Also, becoming SMART certified is very expensive:  For all levels except Platinum, it costs $7500 for certification; Platinum is $10,000.   Maybe that’s why the web site for the SMART Sustainable Textile  lists only 10 products from three companies as being SMaRT certified.  (see http://mts.sustainableproducts.com/SMaRT_Certified.html )

Finally, the fact that the SMART standards are based on widely available, public standards, such as the Stockholm Toxic Chemicals List, means that the SMART standard is not trying to push any envelopes.  For example, the Stockholm Toxic Chemicals List (actually titled the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants) originally banned or restricted twelve chemicals because they accumulate in the tissues of living things and are all but indestructible once they’re released into the natural world.  They can spread across the globe with weather patterns and migrating animals.  They have all been linked to a range of health issues, including cancer and reproductive and developmental problems.  In 2010, nine more chemicals were added to the list, making a total of 21.  But today there are 80,000 chemicals in use by industry, most of which have not ever been tested, so we really don’t even know the extent of our exposure to toxins.  So it’s terrific that  SMART incorporates the Stockholm Convention list, but aren’t those chemicals banned by the Stockholm Convention already?   Also, why stop with just the Stockholm Convention list?  Toxic pollution is a problem without national boundaries.  Chemicals are an issue for international negotiation and have been so for decades.  To date, more than 50 regional and international agreements on chemicals and waste management have been adopted by governments.