Changing Values about PVC as Environmentally Friendly

January 14, 2005 · by James P. Cramer

In the last days of December, the USGBC concluded a review of the environmental and health issues related to vinyl (PVC) building products and released a draft report that concluded that that PVC is not consistently worse than alternative materials on a life-cycle environmental and health basis.

In the last days of December, the U.S. Green Building Council concluded a review of the environmental and health issues related to vinyl (PVC) building products and released a draft report that concluded that that PVC is not consistently worse than alternative materials on a life-cycle environmental and health basis. Thus USGBC does not support a credit in the LEED rating system for eliminating PVC. Going even further, the five-person expert advisory group to the Council states that available evidence indicates that for some product categories, such a simple credit could steer architects and designers to use materials which perform worse over their life cycles, with respect to the bulk of the impact categories on the environment.

Last summer (August 2004) the Design Futures Council conducted its own survey of architecture firms and leaders in the design and construction industry about their use and attitudes toward vinyl. “Challenge and Context: Paradoxes in Vinyl and Sustainable Design,” found that firms which are highly sophisticated in terms of environmental stewardship and sustainability, described vinyl using the following “positive contextual descriptors: low cost and economical, durable, lightweight, easy maintenance, aesthetic with color fast integrated color, alternative, and flexible. The participants described vinyl using the following negative contextual descriptors: concern, dangerous/toxic, flimsy, petroleum product, unattractive, mid-grade, not high end, and short-term economy.”

When asked whether they prefer certain products made of vinyl, the research participants responded “yes” equally as often as or more often than “no” for the following uses: signage, piping, wall coverings, flooring, and blinds.

The somewhat surprising bottom line is that vinyl is a time-tested, researched material with a general, but not perfect, safe history of use dating back more than 50 years. It is important to note that vinyl products meet a demanding range of health and safety standards established by numerous agencies including the National Sanitation Foundation, the National Fire Protection Association, all three model-building codes and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The vinyl industry has made significant progress in putting in place the American Chemistry Counsel’s Responsible Care Codes of Conduct.

Our opinion is the USGBC is on the right track using life-cycle and risk analysis to assess which materials belong in green buildings. Moreover, we believe that while the USGBC’s actions may be unpopular in some green circles, sound scientific and technical analysis have brought forward a wise position for the industry and the planet.

It is time for architects and designers to weigh in with the USGBC. The report is available in this PDF file from usgbc.org.

James P. Cramer

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