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So durable, it's hard to get rid of

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 17, 2005

It's the white plastic pipe that carries away the water when you empty the bathtub. Maybe it's in your home's vinyl siding, your wallpaper, or the beachball your son plays with.

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The material is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), one of the world's most widely used plastics and, increasingly, one of its most controversial. The chemical properties that give it such flexibility and a long serviceable life also make it an environmental liability when it's produced and later when it's thrown out.

At least, that's what environmentalists claim.

With their prodding, an anti-PVC movement is picking up steam and some high-profile corporations have begun to eliminate it from their production lines. But worldwide production is growing - along with the intensity of the debate.

PVC is "one of the most environmentally hazardous consumer materials ever produced," writes Joe Thornton, a biology professor at the University of Oregon in a briefing paper for the Healthy Building Network, an advocacy group.

"It's true that eventually a lot of vinyl is coming out of service," counters Allen Blakey, a spokesman for the Vinyl Institute, a trade group. "But the fact is that you can recycle, landfill, and incinerate it safely and effectively."

The latest salvo was a December report that showed the world is awash with 300 billion pounds of PVC, much of it nearing the end of its 30- to 40- year useful life. In the United States, about 7 billion pounds a year of PVC become municipal solid waste, medical waste, or construction demolition debris, says the report from the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) in Falls Church, Va.

"People are taking the old vinyl siding off their homes or getting rid of old computers, and all that PVC goes into the waste stream," says Lois Gibbs, CHEJ executive director. "There isn't anyone thinking about what to do with it. You can't really recycle it, burn it, or landfill it without creating new problems for society."

Few within the recycling industry would dispute that PVC can be very difficult to recycle. Products made out of it carry a "3" or a "V" inside a recycling triangle symbol. But it is often mistakenly mixed with non-PVC plastic, contaminating entire batches of more valuable recycled plastic. Major plastic recyclers have in the past called PVC a "contaminant" to other plastics.

The share of PVC recycled annually is estimated at just 3 percent or less, according to various studies and US Environmental Protection Agency data cited by CHEJ. By contrast, 36 percent of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, often used in bottles, is recycled, the EPA says.

Incinerating PVC can be a problem, too. It contains chlorine, which when burned can produce the poison dioxin, researchers say. The Vinyl Institute says PVC is not a major source of dioxin. It points out that dioxin air emissions are down sharply in recent years. But environmentalists say that's mainly because of the closing of scores of municipal and medical-waste incinerators.

The only other disposal alternative - landfilling - is not much better, environmentalists say. That's because over time the lead, cadmium, and phthalates - chemicals often added to PVC as stabilizers or to make it soft and pliable - can leach out of PVC into groundwater, the report says. Landfill fires contribute to dioxin emissions, too, the EPA reports.

Such views - especially those in the CHEJ report - are sharply contradicted by the Vinyl Institute. "That report is highly misleading and distorted," says Mr. Blakey. The institute calls it a "myth" that vinyl is a problem in landfills.

The group got a boost in December when the US Green Building Council's PVC task force issued its draft report. It said the available evidence "does not support a conclusion that PVC is consistently worse than alternative materials" in terms of health or the environment.