Blue Vinyl, Green Vinyl ? . . . Nice Vinyl, Mean Vinyl

Bill Walsh | April 14, 2010 | Newsletter

By all accounts my debate on Tuesday night with the Vinyl Institute at the New Jersey Green Building Council was deemed a successful event for all who attended. The Vinyl Industry reps are good at what they do, and they were getting to speak first. I expected them to come out swinging, so I came prepared with Dr. Joe Thornton's comprehensive analysis of every study the Vinyl Institute usually cites in their presentations (starting at p. 15).

But, they surprised me with a rope-a-dope strategy. Time and again, they portrayed the multi-billion-dollar global vinyl industry as the underdog! I suppose the industry is sort of on-the-ropes given the beating they've taken recently: you can't make flexible vinyl without the chemicals known as phthalates, which EPA declared a "chemical of concern" last December. A new study released this month links dioxin exposure to infertility, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States accepted a case filed on behalf of people living near vinyl manufacturing facilities in Mossville, Louisiana alleging that their condition constitutes a violation of their human rights.

We did find some areas of agreement that I think surprised a few people. For example, we both agreed vinyl workers do a good job and deserve good jobs in the future. I digressed slightly wondering what ever happened to the good aluminum workers, who lost their well-paying jobs when vinyl displaced things like aluminum siding. But my larger point was this: by signaling now that vinyl is not a green material, we have plenty of time to transition our manufacturing base so that those jobs can be converted to green chemistry jobs. In fact, I noted, that's exactly what Forbo's Sustain Brochure does in acknowledging that Forbo's own vinyl floorings do not have a future in a truly sustainable building industry as "the true environmental and health concerns about plasticized-PVC continue to penetrate the market."

Of course, on many points we just couldn't agree. Having slept on it, I still can't see how a vinyl manufacturing facility is a "closed-loop operation," a phrase the Vinyl Institute repeated more than once, when just one facility released nearly 100,000 pounds of toxics in 2008, and nearly half of that was the human carcinogen vinyl chloride.

Many, many folks -- including product representatives from vinyl manufacturers -- complimented the panel after the event, expressing the belief that the exchange of information and views is the life blood of the green building movement. I agree. So if you would like to bring the great vinyl debate to your firm or USGBC chapter, please contact my co-panelists Allen Blakey or Judith Nordgren to set something up. You can count on me to be there.