The High Cost of Cheap PVC

Bill Walsh | September 10, 2018

Last month, while attending a meeting of U.S. EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) in Boston, I heard the testimony of Delma and Christine Bennet. They live  in Mossville, LA, amidst what is likely the nation’s largest concentration of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) manufacturing facilities. I was there to present the findings of our recent inventory of pollution associated with the chlorine/PVC supply chain.

Our study found, among other things, that the Gulf Coast region (which includes Mossville) is home to nine facilities that use outmoded asbestos technology, and home also to some of the industry’s worst polluters: Five of the six largest emitters of dioxins––a long lasting, extremely toxic family of hazardous waste that causes cancer and many other health impacts, are located there. The Bennets reminded the EPA that according to studies by a division of the Centers for Disease Control, Mossville residents have three times higher levels of dioxin in their blood than average Americans, and the dioxin levels found in their yards and attic dust exceed regulatory standards typically used for toxic waste remediations of industrial sites. Even the vegetables in their gardens tested positive for dioxin.

When I think about why we fight so hard to exclude PVC from any palette of green, healthy, or sustainable building materials, I think first of people like Delma and Christine. I then think about the many non-profits, government agencies, and private enterprises dedicated to recycling. Way back in the 1990’s, the industry Association of Plastic Recyclers declared PVC a contaminant to the recycling stream. A generation later, a 2016 study by the Circular Economy evangelist Ellen MacArthur Foundation called out PVC packaging for global phase-out, citing low recycling rates and chemical hazard concerns. Much of the concern about PVC packaging is driven by worries about ocean pollution.  Our recent study found that at least one U.S. PVC manufacturer is routinely dumping tons of PVC pellets into local waterways and refusing to stop even after being ordered to do so by the state of Texas.

The list goes on. Our recent report documents the types of industrial pollution in addition to dioxin that could be reduced or avoided by a switch to more recyclable plastics that are not made with the chlorine that is an essential ingredient of PVC, including ozone depleting and potent global warming gasses. Our earlier studies have documented the hazards posed by legacy pollutants that are returning to our consumer products in recycled PVC content––heavy metals such as lead, and endocrine-disrupting plasticizers known as phthalates.

There is a better way

There is virtually no use of PVC in building products that could not be replaced with another plastic or other material. Indeed, from siding, to wallpaper, to window frames, PVC has displaced materials that are more recyclable, such as aluminum and paper. Because the industry is not held accountable for the environmental health damages wrought in places like Mossville, PVC has artificially low costs that present barriers to entry, or inhibit market expansion of less hazardous, more sustainable alternatives.

That is why PVC should not be part of any building, or any building rating system, that claims to advance environmental and health objectives. It’s not green. It’s not healthy.  It’s not sustainable. It’s just cheap––for us. Because folks like Delma and Christine Bennet pay the true cost.

Know Better

Learn more about the implications of chlorine as a feedstock in plastics in our Chlorine and Building Materials report.