So durable, it's hard to get rid of
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"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."Skip to next paragraph
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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