The New York Times On How (and why) to Build a Low-PVC, Reduced-Plastic, Polar-Bear-Sensitive House

Bill Walsh | March 09, 2006 | Policies

Everyday we see more evidence that people who care about how materials impact human health reject PVC plastic. [1] The latest news was delivered with last Sunday's New York Times Magazine in the form of an article bearing the headline "How to Build a Low-PVC, Reduced-Plastic, Polar-Bear-Sensitive House." [2] This time it wasn't Firestone, Wal-Mart, Kaiser Permanente or Microsoft taking a stand against PVC, it was a retired investment banker in Maine.

The article opened by noting that "ecologically responsible construction isn't just about minimizing the immediate impact on the environment . . . or energy consumption . . . . It's about materials, especially plastics, adhesives and additives." That might come as news to the owners of the green building movement's most recognized brands — the US Green Building Council's (USGBC) LEED Rating System, and the increasingly influential Green Globes auditing tool founded and marketed in the US by plastics and timber industry groups.

The plastics industry has tied the USGBC in knots over the question of whether PVC is or is not a green building material. The Council's last word on the subject, a December 2004 draft report, [3] was that after four years of analysis, it could not determined whether PVC was better or worse than any other material. Virtually every non-industry affiliated commenter criticized the report. The plastics industry applauded the conclusion, and now spends big bucks to use the USGBC Draft Report as a selling point for PVC. USGBC member companies and USGBC trade associations suffer no consequence for circulating the draft that is marked "DO NOT CITE" on every page, while members of the committee who drafted the report are bound not to discuss it.

Not satisfied with their success at the USGBC, the plastics industry in 2005 funded the start up of the Green Globes building rating system as a direct competitor to LEED — again without consequence as members in good standing of the USGBC. Green Globes accepts the contention of the American Plastics Council that all plastics are green building materials.

PVC is a bellwether issue for the green building movement. Using junk science and intimidation tactics, some of the nation's most anti-environmental industry groups have paralyzed the green building movement and driven a wedge between the movement's leadership and its rank and file.

Tony Grassi, the 61-year-old retired investment banker who, along with his wife Sally, was profiled by The New York Times Magazine, leapfrogged most official green building criteria when they gave due consideration to the health impacts associated with the manufacturing process and the disposal of the byproducts of their building materials. As a result, they carefully sought to avoid copper, formaldehyde, and the persistent toxic chemicals used as flame retardants on fabrics and upholstery. According to the article, their "biggest concern" was PVC.

"PVC is just awful,", said Tony Grassi. "We wanted to push the envelope on things that green builders don't always pay attention to." The Grassis hoped that their materials choices would begin "to drive the market for better products."

Unless the US green building movement pays closer attention to human health concerns, that could be a very long drive. Two weeks before the Grassi's story appeared in The New York Times, one of the world's largest PVC manufacturer's boasted that home-improvement expenditures on the worst plastic for the human health and the environment have increased from 8 % to 30% since 1990 [4] — a trend that parallels the growth of the US Green Building Council, founded in 1993.


[1] PVC (also commonly called vinyl) refers to polyvinylchloride plastic. Environmental and health groups consider PVC to be the worst plastic for the environment because of the unique and devastating nature of the health impacts associated with PVC manufacturing, use and disposal.

[2] Florence Williams, "How to Build A Low-PVC, Reduced Plastic, Polar-Bear-Sensitive House," The New York Times Magazine, March 5, 2006, p.92

[3] See HBN's analysis of "Assessment of Technical Basis for a PVC-Related Materials Credit in LEED" [no longer available]

[4] "Odds Are, Vinyl's Just Warming Up" Plastics News, February 13, 2006.