Folks, this is about my "consumption" of plastic over the next year. I'm looking at what I have, what I buy, and why I seem to need this hundred and fifty year old man-made concoction more than my mother's fried chicken.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Week 10: PVC (#3)

As an appetizer, please enjoy this great link to a PVC Noir Cartoon from the Grassroots Recycling Network.

Polyvinyl chloride, or vinyl is one of the most dangerous substances ever made according to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. You know how sometimes you can have a friend or a co-worker who is really cool & nice in the beginning, and she does all these really great things for you? And you're like, "OMG! This co-worker is so fantastic and does all these really great things for me!" And then, as time goes by she totally stabs you in the back by giving you cancer. That's like PVC.

As a disclaimer, I'm not even attempting to be objective about PVC. We need some serious reflection & rethinking on this material. I applaud the mantra of "do no harm", but I have higher expectations for my species. We should look at every material with a "do good" mantra. Does PVC do good?

We got a new heating system this week and as I was working on last week's post, something foul wafted up through the basement. I later found out that it was likely PVC cement. I gather this is not something I want to spread on my morning multi-grain toast. I went downstairs and saw the familiar white 4 inch pipes weaving through the other dark spaghetti of pipes that float overhead. It's so hard to imagine something so benign-looking and apparently indispensable to modern heating & plumbing can be so harmful. Last year, the humans of the world used about 35 million metric tons of PVC (the rough equivalent of about 250,000 blue whales).

When I think of PVC, the white pipe always comes to mind, but we have basically surrounded ourselves with PVC. Here is a list of some potentially vinylicious products:
  • shower curtains (my co-worker is frowning right now...I can feel it.)
  • ceiling tiles
  • carpet backing
  • upholstery fabric
  • window treatments
  • children's clothing (Greenpeace study on Disney clothing)
  • toys
  • inflatable pools
  • fake leather bags
  • garden hoses
  • blood bags, medical tubing and a variety of other medical supplies
  • home siding, flooring, roofing & windows
  • gutters
  • electrical wire
  • cable insulation
  • credit cards
  • records (ancestor of the iPod)
  • commercial signage (trade show banners, car magnets, decals, lettering...)
  • Barbie, Ken & Skipper too.
  • Jelly Glitter Bell Boots...for horses. I'm not kidding.
  • Jump ropes (did you know there is a Jump Rope Institute?)
The Vinyl Institute (which coincidentally has a little blurb about the importance of PVC in aquariums) is based in Arlington, VA has been working hard to carry out the vision for 27 years:
"Vinyl is the global plastic of choice for infrastructure and diverse applications."
Is that a vision or a command?

Anyway, the VI "is a U.S. trade association representing the leading manufacturers of vinyl, vinyl chloride monomer, vinyl additives and modifiers, and vinyl packaging materials." According to the VI, vinyl saves lives and is the backbone of modern medicine. They also have a very organized and vague list which comprises their commitment to health, safety & the environment. But the question remains: how can you have ANY commitment to the environment when the core product you promote contains and emits harmful byproducts throughout its entire life cycle? Once again, is there a way to make PVC good for the earth?

PVC is a tireless giver. It freely donates to earth, water, and air: mercury, phthalates, and dioxins or more simply translated into "brain fry", "likely cancer", and "cancer." This is our entree for the evening. I like to call it the "death kabob."

Mercury. What a fantastically mesmerizing element. It's a car, it's a god, it's a surf apparel brand, and it's a wicked cute planet. If you are looking for a reliable and permanent neurotoxin, mercury is the drug of choice. Also, I just discovered something disturbing. Although many cosmetic companies are phasing out the input of mercury in their products, it still happens. Minnesota is the only state in the US to ban mercury-containing cosmetics (namely mascara). I really want to open the cosmetics-ingredients-labels can-o-worms, but I refrain. I'm already on a tangent. Maybe that will be my next blog. But ladies, thespians, clowns, and cross-dressers, please check out this link--it's awesome.

Phthalates (THAL-8's). I'm going to call them "8's" for short. There are 21 different types of commonly used 8's and 90% of all 8's are funneled into the making of PVC. It's a plasticizer, which is like yoga for vinyl, making it nice & flexible (think barbie heads). Can we assume a direct relationship between phthalates and phlexibility? For instance, does vinyl siding have a higher 8 content than the pipes underneath your sink? I'm not certain. According to the Phthalates Information Center, 8's "make our lives better and safer...and they make our homes more decorative..." The PIC also attempts to reassure us that "many independent reviews have declared them to be safe as used in toys and cosmetics." Phew, because I can't imagine what I would do if they banned the ingredient that makes my nail polish resistant to chipping. I might die. The Phthalates Info Center doesn't state outright that 8's are not harmful, and they repeat the idea throughout their site that 8's are innocent until proven guilty...all 21 of them I guess.

Dioxins. DIE...oxins. Heck of a name. Dioxins show up when the PVC is burned accidentally during manufacture or in the disposal process. If it's got chlorine in it, it's going to have dioxins coming out of it. Dioxins, also referred to as PBT's (persistent bioaccumulative toxicants)--sounds yummy, doesn't it? Mmmmm, toxicants...Not to sound too morbid, but you have dioxins swimming around in you right now. Prove me wrong--please...I really want to be wrong on this one. I think this equation sums it up nicely:
Take home message? Don't stand around staring at house & car fires like those folks on the 10 O'Clock news. House fires suck--don't make it worse by inhaling your toilet plumbing or glove compartment. Run Forest, run.

According to ICIS (please tell me what the acronym stands for--I couldn't find it on their website), "...Sears Holding, the parent corporation of retail giants Sears and Kmart, announced it would be joining Target, Wal-Mart, Microsoft and several other large retail-oriented companies in phasing out PVC." The US Green Building Council has also given PVC two thumbs down citing it as one of the most hazardous materials on the market. FOX News however, loves PVC and believes that Love Canal was a bunch of hype.

There are 4 major companies that manufacture PVC in the US.
  1. Formosa Plastics is out of Taiwan and just last Wednesday, the company made the news because they were fined over $100,000 for repeated environmental violations at one of their plants in Point Comfort, TX. This is chump change for a $5 billion a year business.
  2. Shintech, a subsidiary of a Japanese based company is the largest producer of PVC in the US and they are located in Plaquemine, LA...yet another southern state and another landmark on "Cancer Alley's" sightseeing tour. 10 years earlier, Shintech's plans to build the plant were smothered by citizen protests of environmental racism.
  3. OxyChem/Occidental, headquartered in Dallas, TX also claims that they are the leading manufacturer of PVC in the US. Al Gore has an interesting old connection with Oxy, aside from being a shareholder. In 1996, he apparently brokered the deal for Occidental to buy traditional lands from the Kitanemuk in Southern California, but that's another tangent.
  4. Georgia Gulf is headquartered in Atlanta, GA and they specialize in chlorovinyl and aromatics production. They are neighbors with Shintech in Plaquemine, LA and Formosa in southeast Texas.

PVC RECYCLING: In Cooper City, FL National Recycling can recycle pretty much any kind of plastic (including PVC), but I'm not clear on whether or not they would take a bucket full of pipes if I walked up to their security gate. I found an interesting bit from a Recycling Today article about a subsidiary of Georgia-Gulf, Royal Group Technologies, Ltd., a PVC manufacturer in Ontario, Canada who bought an Italian-designed "regrinder" to process their own PVC scrap as well as their customers' scrap. It's a closed-loop system and wouldn't you know? It saves them money. Alas, most of the PVC waste in the US, Europe & Australia is shoved off on "all those other countries" to deal with, and wouldn't you know? Many of those countries just happen to have less restrictions on materials disposal. I was only able to find 2 stats on the percentage of PVC that is actually recycled and both estimated a whopping 0.5%.

I feel like I can just keep going with this one. There is a TON of information to sift through regarding this material. If you take anything away from this post (other than a great site to buy glitter boots for horses), know that PVC #3 is a questionable material and a contaminant in your recycling bin AT BEST.

Closing questions:
What kind of relationship do you have with PVC?
What PVC items can you phase out of your life?

Closing Haiku about PVC:
PVC and me
Do I really need this crap?
Does it give me life?


Rick said...

I was with you until vinyl records.


I am enjoying these... well, if enjoying is the right word.

Sunnye said...

HA!! I know--it breaks my heart too. I heart vinyl records. So glad you're tuning in--I'm trying to keep up with you AND Kristi!

jessica said...

That name, Formosa struck a cord with me. It's a common end to a scientific name for fish species, so I had to look into the meaning: Beautiful. How fitting. I bet that plant in Texas is the one making the horse boots, the Barbies, and the home decorations. How beautiful the world can be when we can have "[
spotted pufferfish]" sharing the same name as a carcinogen!

Sunnye said...

Ah Jessica--I see you are an etymology nerd too. Alas, this name doesn't surprise me. You know how a lot of times street names are memorials to whatever "thing" they displaced or plowed over? I guess this is the same thing..."Let's call our company Formosa "en memoriam" to beauty." The street I grew up on was Pebblebrook. I can't imagine how beautiful that pebbled brook must have been before the subdivision rolled in...

Anita said...

I find this post on PVC highly amusing seeing as we work at a place that attributes most of its functioning to PVC pipes. On a lobster note - researchers are looking into how phthalates (8s) affect lobster shell and may cause shell disease.

Stefanie said...

If it wasn't for the PVC stuff I'd have a lot of problems doing my research--its in my boat, it's part of my equipment--but I did try to limit it as much as possible and find any alternatives if possible. Alas, sometimes there aren't any--and seawater is a killer on equipment.

Sunnye said...

Anita--yeah--I posted earlier that I basically wouldn't have a job right now if it weren't for PVC. Keep me posted on the phthalate lobster thing!!

Sunnye said...

Stef!! Yep--it's hard to imagine any job involving water--especially salt water--without PVC. What alternatives have you found?

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