The New Summer Blockbuster: European PVC Lifecycle Analysis ~ The Prequel

Bill Walsh | June 15, 2004 | Materials

This summer's offering in the long running serial-action- drama series known as the PVC Debate comes from Europe. The new release, "Life Cycle Assessment of PVC and of Principal Competing Materials" by a consulting consortium led by PE Europe GmbH, is being hyped by PVC manufacturers as a blockbuster prequel to the much anticipated epic PVC study now in production at the US Green Building Council (USGBC). This is because the European study, utilizing an analytic framework that some have suggested be used by the USGBC's PVC Task force, "compares 30 life-cycle assessment (LCA) studies comparing (sic) PVC in its major applications with competitive materials."[1] But, if you shelled out big bucks to see "The Day After Tomorrow," you know you can't always believe the hype.

Things go awry right from the opening credits on page 2 of the report. There you find the disclaimer stating that the study, paid for by the European Parliament and published on the EU website, nevertheless "should not necessarily be regarded as stating an official position of the European Commission."[2] For green building professionals looking for expert analysis, the only thing more annoying than this disclaimer would be its absence on a work so vapid. The respected trade publication Environment Daily summed it up this way:

"Critically, the consultants do not quantify the relative performance of materials in particular applications. Nor do they do so across applications. Nor do they attempt to reconcile the often divergent conclusions of individual LCA studies. All of which leaves wide scope for interest groups to draw their own conclusions."[3]

Which just goes to show that hype surrounding LCAs is often out of proportion to the quality of the work, like big budget movies. Even with the best data available, LCAs remain a tool that can help only with one part of the puzzle -- the well-quantified part -- at the risk of obscuring the significance of the poorly quantified, but no less real, impacts of manufacturing, use and disposal. Like cancer.

Two chemicals abundant in the PVC lifecycle, dioxin and vinyl chloride, are very real but poorly quantified human carcinogens. The authors justify the omission of these emissions in the studies they reviewed by assuring readers that these "will be close to or below the negligible risk level in modern facilities."[4] That sounds suspiciously like Vinyl Institute dogma because, when the Environmental Protection Agency looked at actual industry data, it concluded that ethylene dichloride (EDC) / vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) production is among the top 15 sources of dioxin emissions in the United States. This doesn't even count accidental and unintentional releases, which according to data held by local governments -- not the federal EPA -- routinely expose people living up to 1.5 miles from PVC manufacturing facilities to excessive levels of vinyl chloride.[5]

The unconvincing props and continuity gaps in this report recall the B-movies of the notoriously bad director Ed Wood.[6] These problems are well documented in a newly published critique by Mark Rossi, PhD.[7]

For all but fans of cult cinema and pseudo-science, we give this feature two thumbs down.


Responding to Kaiser Permanente's challenge to develop a PVC-free carpet that can meet the health care giant's exacting environmental and performance standards, on June 14, Collins & Aikman (C&A) introduced a new carpet line, which uses an alternative plastic material for the carpet backing. In addition to C&A's announcement at NeoCon, the premier commercial interiors event in North America, Shaw committed to end all production of PVC-backed carpet this year. Read more from HBN at


A report issued by GRRN (Grassroots Recycling Network) provides evidence that PVC bottles and labels threaten the PET bottle recycling infrastructure and the continued development of bottle-to-bottle PET recycling. To read the report "Message In a Bottle: The Impacts of PVC on Plastic Recycling," go to GRRN's website at


[1] "Life Cycle Assessment of PVC and of Principal Competing Materials"

[2] "Life Cycle Assessment of PVC and of Principal Competing Materials" p, 2.

[3] Opponents scrap over EU review of PVC - June 3, 2004 Environment Daily,

[4] "Life Cycle Assessment of PVC and of Principal Competing Materials," p.54

[5] "Report from the USGBC PVC Hearing," Healthy Building News, February 25, 2004.


[7] Reaching the Limits of Quantitative Life Cycle Assessment: A Critical Review of "Life Cycle Assessment of PVC and of Principal Competing Materials," Mark Rossi, PhD, Clean Production Action, June, 2004.