Spinning Vinyl: Companies Kick Out the PVCWhen vinyl meant slabs of music in well-designed sleeves, it was more alluring than threatening. But these days, health concerns linked to this ubiquitous plastic material mandate greater caution. Sportswear giants Nike and Adidas and automakers Toyota and General Motors, as well as many toy producers, hi-tech companies, and health care facilities, have begun phasing out use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Even Microsoft gets the message, giving consumers an unexpected Christmas gift last December with the elimination of PVC from its product packaging.
Consumers deserve a pat on the back for making it clear that the hazards of PVC production can be avoided. The availability of affordable alternatives for many uses also makes vinyl an easy target in the "greening" of industry. Still, any impression that PVC use is declining would be mistaken: U.S. and Canadian resin production rose 8.7 percent in 2004, according to the American Plastics Council.
In the United States, some 250,500 tons of PVC is burned in municipal incinerators each year, releasing dioxin into the air and into the groundwater near landfills where the ash is buried. Dioxins attach to fat and bio-accumulate in the human body, particularly in women's breast milk. When fed to nursing infants, they can pose developmental and cancer risks. A Dutch study found that children with higher levels of prenatal dioxin exposure had more ear infections and a reduced response to vaccination. In rhesus monkeys, dioxins have been linked to endometriosis, a painful uterine condition.
If that weren't bad enough, many PVC products contain phthalate plasticizers and lead stabilizers that make them even more toxic, not to mention difficult to recycle. A 2003 study of 120 Massachusetts homes by the Silent Spring Institute found that phthalates-in particular di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP)-were the most abundant hormone-disrupting compounds in household dust. BBP, used to soften vinyl tiles and children's toys, has been shown to harm mouse embryos and, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, is found in higher levels in children than any other age group. In July 2005, the European Union banned BBP, DEHP, and DBP (dibutyl phthalate) from toys and restricted the use of three other phthalates in children's products. A month later, vinyl made U.S. headlines when the Center for Environmental Health reported that 17 of 150 soft plastic lunchboxes tested had lead levels surpassing federal safety standards, posing a threat to children's developing brains.
In the United States, PVC piping makes up about 40 percent of the vinyl industry, followed by vinyl siding, windows, cables, flooring, wall covering, and roofing. Vinyl is a common ingredient in film and sheet packaging, while the auto industry is using more PVC than a decade ago. Recent corporate cutbacks may have more to do with the rising cost of this natural gas-derived material than with efforts to show environmental responsibility. It's too early yet to say PVC is on its way out, but at least you can play your MP3s without worry-you're only spinning electrons.
Some tips to avoid buying PVC-laden products:
- Plastic Packaging and Containers: Look out for a "3" or "V" recycling code, which indicates the product is made of PVC.
- Computers: Support brands that are PVC-conscious. Apple Computer specifies that no plastic parts weighing over 25 grams can contain PVC.
- Sportswear: Nike, Puma, Reebok, Adidas, and Asics have all received "A" grades from Greenpeace for their efforts to eliminate PVC from product lines.
- Bags: Vinyl is commonly used in handbags, but PVC-free options exist. Try Global Exchange's hemp handbag or Green Earth Office Supply's recycled rubber messenger bag.
- Lunchboxes: For sturdiness, metal boxes can't be beat. Steel options are available at AsianaWest or Lunchboxes.com.
- Toys: Lego, Brio, Chicco, Gerber, International Playthings, Lamaze Infant Development, Sassy, and Tiny Love have all received "A's" from Greenpeace for their elimination of PVC.
- Flooring: Cork, natural linoleum (made from linseed oil), and recycled tile are all effective alternatives to vinyl.
- Piping: Vitrified clay, iron, and stainless steel are standard (though heavy) alternatives. High-density polyethylene is lighter but expands more with temperature shifts.
For more information, visit www.thegreenguide.com for product reports on toys, plastic containers, computers, and flooring.
Paul W. McRandle is Senior Research Editor of The Green Guide, published by The Green Guide Institute, which provides the research for this department.
Credit line for lunchbox art:
Joan A. Wolbier