So durable, it's hard to get rid of
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.
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.
"Whether it is the energy savings provided by vinyl windows or the resource conservation of durable products like pipe, siding, and flooring, vinyl has a place in 'green' buildings," said Tim Burns, president of the Vinyl Institute, in a statement. The institute noted that a European Commission report had also "found vinyl's environmental impacts to be similar to those of competing materials."
The green-building council report was quickly attacked by scientists and activists. "You can't just take something toxic and wrap it in a coating," complains Bill Walsh of Healthy Building Network.
If the overall market is any indication, support for PVC is growing. Domestic production rose to 16 billion pounds last year, up 8.8 percent from 2003. But the product mix is changing, due in part to the pressure brought by environmentalists.
One of the early victories for the anti-PVC movement came three years ago when Ms. Gibbs and environmental watchdog Greenpeace targeted Bath and Body Works and Victoria's Secret. Both brands, owned by Limited Brands of Columbus, Ohio, packaged personal-care products in PVC bottles.
"We told them we were going to tell the world about 'Victoria's dirty little secret' - its PVC bottles," recalls Lisa Finaldi, a Greenpeace activist. The idea was to make Victoria's Secret a public example and gain media attention for the anti-PVC cause. But a few days and several thousand faxes and e-mails later, company officials met with the activists and agreed to eliminate PVC from all products by 2003. Today, the Limited Brands website touts its reduction of 4.3 million pounds of PVC per year.
In the past four years, a cadre of companies - from Mattel (toys) to Nike (shoes and sporting equipment) to General Motors (auto interior panels) - have moved to phase out PVC. Since December, Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson said they were giving it up.
Although it has retreated from some product areas, the plastic has made huge inroads into housing products, an industry where its malleability and low cost make it a favorite. Plans for a new PVC manufacturing plant are nearing approval south of Baton Rouge, La.
Yet, even in the construction industry, there are new rumblings of discontent.
Firestone Building Products, a major manufacturer of commercial roofing material, this month will begin phasing out its PVC roofing products, citing a desire to be environmentally responsible. "I believe people are going to look more and more at buildings from the point of view of how it affects the people living or working in it," says Ted Boylan, a Firestone distributor in Woburn, Mass.
"We actually are winning the battle, but it's a hard battle to win, because we are going product by product, sector by sector," says Gibbs of CHEJ. "At some point, there will be a critical mass."
Since its creation 143 years ago, synthetic plastic has become a popular material, used in everything from carpeting to airplane windows. But must it all end up in landfills? Some alternatives:
• Incineration Made from petroleum or natural gas, plastic contains more energy than other trash. But burning can emit harmful substances.
• Recycling It's so labor-intensive to sort discards, the US recycles only 5 percent of its plastic.
• Biodegradable plastic So far, it's expensive to make and degrades only if exposed to light or air. Buried in landfills, it can persist for decades.
• Paper substitutes One Canadian study found that making paper cups consumes 12 times as much steam, 36 times as much electricity, and twice as much cooling water as polystyrene cups.
Sources: Plastics Historical Society; US Energy Information Administration; Organic Style magazine; PackagingToday.com