GreenSpec Says: "Avoid PVC"

Bill Walsh | October 27, 2006 | Policies

GreenSpec [1], the UK construction industry's definitive guide to sustainable construction, has completed a comparative evaluation of numerous building materials, including PVC building components. GreenSpec's easy-to-use guide provides both detailed and summary analysis. A section entitled "We Would Specify" directs users to materials considered to be First Choice, Second Choice, options to Think About, and, finally, materials to Avoid in green building. In many categories, GreenSpec concludes: "AVOID PVC."

GreenSpec reaches these conclusions through the correct application of Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). The largest industrial polluters in the U.S., such as the chemicals and plastics industry, advocate LCA as an absolute measure of environmental impact, knowing full well that LCA fails to account for the human health impacts of the vast amounts of toxic chemicals they release to the air, land and water. GreenSpec rejects that approach, finding the analysis incomplete. GreenSpec adds assessment criteria that specifically address acknowledged deficiencies in LCA methodology, such as the absence of reliable human health impacts data. GreenSpec compensates for this lack of information by rewarding the use of products that eliminate emissions of known or suspected of causing cell mutations (i.e. cancer) as well as those which reduce/eliminate the emission of substances known to or suspected of having other toxic effects on humans or natural systems.

The narrow discipline of life cycle analysis is currently so arcane that only a handful of experts in the US are even qualified to debate its details, and even they often disagree on fundamental questions. This relegates most green building professionals to spectator status on issues that are well within their professional skill and experience. GreenSpec makes it clear this is the wrong way to incorporate LCA into the green building movement.

The GreenSpec evaluation team writes: "LCA is relatively new to the construction industry. Consequently, though there is a burgeoning body of data, the amount of information available to enable rigorous assessment remains limited. . . . Short of universal criteria and independently verified data, specifiers are obliged to fall back on their own / collective experience and criteria of selection. . . . Information is drawn from a range of sources including manufacturers' literature, third party analysis, personal and group experience." Note, this is not substituting "opinion" for "data." It is validating professional training, expertise and experience to fill in the data gaps, reconcile inconsistencies and evaluate unproven resources and methodology.

GreenSpec applies this method of analysis to specific building materials in a transparent manner, including addressing a topic that proved most vexing for the PVC Task Group of the USGBC: windows.

In its draft report, the USGBC PVC Task Group was confounded by the materials used in windows, finding the lifecycle results "remarkably similar" [2]. As HBN pointed out in its comments, [3] the TSAC's LCA formula diluted the unique cancer impacts of PVC frames. In contrast, GreenSpec tackles the issue of frame materials head-on and guides green building professionals through an understandable analysis that ultimately offers a clear range of specification recommendations.

Yes, Virginia, it does make a difference to human health weather you use natural wood or toxic PVC to frame your window! GreenSpec's analysis of windows is incredibly valuable and we recommend HBNews patrons to read it in its entirety.

With GreenSpec's recommendation, the UK now joins Australia (whose Green Star rating system offers credits for PVC reduction) in resolving the PVC debate in plain English.

What is it about this that we don't understand in the US?


[1] GreenSpec UK is not affiliated with the US-based GreenSpec® published by the Environmental Building News. The US-based GreenSpec® also offers many PVC alternatives, and Building Green has recognized many PVC alternatives with new product awards. In 1994 the US-based GreenSpec® recommended that builders and architects "seek out better, safer, and more environmentally responsible alternatives [to vinyl]. Also, keep an eye on the PVC debate. A process has been put into motion that will take many years or even decades to unfold. Newer, safer, materials will almost certainly be developed by industries that are increasingly aware of environmental concerns."

[2] USGBC TSAC PVC Task Group Assessment of Technical Basis for a PVC-Related Material Credit in LEED®, page 73.

[3] Comments of Tom Lent, on behalf of the Healthy Building Network to the USGBC TSAC PVC Draft Report dated December 17, 2004, page 22.