2005 In Review: The Year PVC Phase-Out Went Mainstream

Bill Walsh | December 21, 2005 | Policies

PVC phase-outs by leading U.S. corporate brands are now a familiar landmark on the road to corporate sustainability.

On December 7, 2005, The Wall Street Journal reported that "Microsoft Corp. is curbing its use of a popular plastic known as PVC amid growing health and environmental concerns ... the latest company to distance itself from polyvinyl chloride, or vinyl, which critics say poses dangers throughout its life cycle. Others to move away from PVC include Hewlett-Packard Co., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and health-care provider Kaiser Permanente, according to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice."[1]

Forward-looking corporate leaders striving to balance profitability and sustainability in an uncertain business environment increasingly find that it pays to phase-out PVC.

In October, B. Braun Medical Inc.[2] bested rival medical device maker Baxter International, winning a five year, $70 million contract to deliver PVC/DEHP[3]-free products demanded by Catholic Healthcare West, a system of 40 hospitals and medical centers serving California, Arizona, and Nevada. The contract was "driven by an institution's desire for conversion to PVC/DEHP-free products for the health and well-being of patients and the regional ecology," said Braun Chairman and CEO Caroll H. Neubauer. "This partnership underscores the value of our long-standing commitment to human and environmental health, and reinforces the market demand for PVC/DEHP-free products."[4] Values increasingly have value.

Earlier this year, Firestone Building Products CEO Michael Gorey risked tens of millions of dollars in building material sales to Wal-Mart, his largest customer, when he announced that Firestone would stop offering PVC roofing products. Asked to reconcile the business sense with the environmental sense of the decision, Gorey told HBN: "We concluded that there is a strong business case for the decision as well as an environmental case, and both are consistent with our business model. ... It's the right move from every way we look at it."[5]

Firestone offers its halogen-free PVC alternative — TPO (thermoplastic polyolefin) membrane — with the same service and guarantees, and at a more competitive price and installed cost. Wal-Mart hasn't announced a final decision on whether they will move with Firestone and specify PVC-free membranes on future construction, but there certainly is reason for optimism. In October, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott announced that the global retailer would eliminate PVC packaging from its house brands.

It was exactly one year ago this week that the U.S. Green Building Council released its Draft Report on PVC Building Materials. The document failed to properly account for many of the health risks associated with the PVC lifecycle, and was widely critiqued in a subsequent public comment process. It has yet to be released in final form.

But unless the USGBC has grown more conservative than corporate America, there is reason for optimism here, as well. After five years of studying the question, we've learned that PVC phase-outs are mainstream.

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[1] "Microsoft Is Curbing Use Of PVC, a Popular Plastic" by Thaddeus Herrick, Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL December 7, 2005; Page D7.

[2] http://www.bbraunusa.com

[3] DEHP is a toxic phthalate plasticizer commonly used to soften PVC products.

[4] CHW Switches to PVC-Free Products: Safer for Patients, Cleaner for Earth (November 23, 2005) (PDF)

[5] Interview: Michael Goery, President of Firestone Building Products Company, Talks About "Making It Right" and Phasing Out PVC (Healthy Building News, March 31, 2005)