Polyvinyl chloride – PVC – is the most toxic plastic for our health and it’s not so good for the environment either. First, it’s made from petroleum, one of our scarce natural resources. Globally, over 50% of PVC manufactured is used in construction, in products such as pipelines, wiring, siding, flooring and wallpaper – as well as a host of other products, including fabrics. As a building material PVC is cheap, easy to install and easy to replace. PVC is replacing ‘traditional’ building materials such as wood, concrete and clay in many areas. Although it appears to be the ideal building material, PVC has high environmental and human health costs that its manufacturers fail to tell consumers.
From its manufacture to its disposal, PVC emits toxic compounds. During the manufacture of the building block ingredients of PVC (such as the vinyl chloride monomer) dioxin and other persistent pollutants are emitted into the air, water and land, which present both acute and chronic health hazards. During use, PVC products can leach toxic additives, for example flooring can release softeners called phthalates. When PVC reaches the end of its useful life, it cannot be recycled, so it must either be landfilled, where it leaches toxic additives, or incinerated, again emitting dioxin and heavy metals. When PVC burns in accidental fires, hydrogen chloride gas and dioxin are formed.
No other plastic contains or releases as many dangerous chemicals. There’s no safe way to manufacture, use or dispose of PVC products.
And yet we see the advertisement of “eco friendly” vinyl. What does it mean?
Vinyl is commonly used as a shorthand name for PVC. Usually, when a product is referred to as “vinyl,” it is comprised primarily of PVC. Occasionally it also may refer to polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) a closely related compound, which is used in food wraps (‘Saran’) and other films. This product shares most of the same environmental health problems with PVC.
In chemistry, however, the term “vinyl’ actually has a broader meaning, encompassing a range of different thermoplastic chemical compounds derived from ethylene. In addition to PVC, “vinyls” in building materials also include:
- ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), used in films, wire coating and adhesives
- polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA) a copolymer of polyethylene and EVA used in shower curtains, body bags
- polyvinyl acetate (PVA), used in paints and adhesives, such as white glue, and
- polyvinyl butyral (PVB), used in safety glass films.
What makes PVC different from the other vinyls is the addition of a chlorine molecule (The “C” in PVC and PVDC stands for chlorine). Chlorine is the source of many of the concerns with PVC, such as the generation of dioxin, a highly carcinogenic chemical produced in both the manufacture and disposal of PVC. Due to its persistent and bioaccumulative nature (it travels long distances without breaking down and concentrates as it moves up the food chain to humans) dioxin has become a global problem and an international treaty – the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) – now prioritizes the elimination of processes that produce dioxin.
Some of the non-chlorinated vinyls (EVA, PEVA, PVA and PVB) are now beginning to be used as direct substitutes for PVC. EVA has been in use for several years as a chlorine free substitute for PVC – primarily in non building materials like toys and athletic shoes, but occasionally as a protective film or binder. In the building industry, post-consumer recycled PVB is now beginning to be used to replace PVC in carpet backing. Absence of chlorine alone does not make these other vinyls the final answer in the search for green polymers. There are still plenty of toxic challenges and untested chemicals in the life cycle of any petrochemical product. As is the case with most other polymers competing with PVC, however, the weight of available evidence indicates that the absence of chlorine in the formula will generally render the lifecycle environmental health impacts of PVB and the other vinyls less harmful than PVC – and initial study is bearing this out. Like the polyolefin plastics, the use of PVB and the other non-chlorinated vinyls represents a step forward in the search for alternatives to PVC.
In summary, with the exception of paints, glues and certain films, “vinyl” as a product description almost always means made of PVC. The term vinyl in ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA), polyvinyl acetate (PVA), and polyvinyl butyral (PVB), however, does not refer to PVC and does not raise the same concerns associated with chlorinated molecules like PVC.
When in doubt about the use of the term “vinyl”, ask if it is PVC.
For virtually all PVC applications, safer alternatives exist, using more sustainable, traditional materials – such as paper, wood or local materials. PVC can also be replaced by a variety of other, less environmentally damaging plastics, although most plastics pose some risk to the environment and contribute to the global waste crisis.
17 thoughts on “What does “eco friendly” vinyl mean?”
Thank you! I look forward to your blog posts…always great information to share with clients, friends and family.
Thank you for laying out that explanation. I would like to hear the salesmen of these PVC materials to use the terms high environmental and human health costs.
I am trying to research the flame retardant compounds ( bromilated ethers) that are applied to fabrics in the industry. Are these compounds water soluble? Can I wash them out of fabric? Can I add anything to the wash cycle so to bind the ethers and get them off the fabric? Thank you.
Hi Joanne: I think you’re asking about brominated flame retardants, and one of that class is the media darling, PBDE (polybrominated biphenyl ether). It has low water solubility. Flame retardants (of all kinds) are designed NOT to wash out – think of how irate a customer would be if they bought a fabric that was supposed to be flame retardant but the chemicals had come out in the wash and so the fabric burned in a fire! The implications could be dire. So the chemical companies make very sure that the flame retardants bind with the fibers so they cannot be removed. None of the functional chemicals used in textile processing (dyes, finishes such as stain, odor, UV or wrinkle resistance) can be washed out.
I always learn so much from your articles and this post is no exception. Thank you for taking the time to research and share!
Hi, great blog!! for some fashion companies like LV, Gucci and others that have made bags out of PVC what would be an alternative to replace it with something of a similar look? Is there a “clean” PVC in the fashion world?
You can investigate ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA), polyvinyl acetate (PVA), and polyvinyl butyral (PVB), but I know that some of these have attributes that you might not want, such as being cloudy rather than clear. Currently PVC is not a good choice, but it’s used a lot because it’s very cheap.
hola quiero información sobre el resiclado de tela de poliéster que se hace y empresas en el mundo que resiclen el poliéster sobrante de las mesas de corte
We were hoping to make speaker cabinets and noticed that to cover them you have to use tolex, which I think is a form of vinyl. Is there any environmentally substitute for this material? thanks
I’m sorry – we don’t have a clue. Good luck in your search.
First of all PVC is not made from petroleum… It is 47% ethylene and 53% chlorine (salt). Unlike other polymers it is less dependent on petroleum as is the case with the PC, ABS, PP and PBT (to mention a few). It is unreal to hear how many uninformed an uneducated people discuss the same topics with out a single shred of cold hard facts. The term “eco-friendly PVC) refers to a different plasticizer which uses soy bean oil rather than phthalates which are under intense scrutiny due to their endocrine disrupting nature. PVC can be plasticized with Adipates, citrates and many other formulations to remove the phthalates. ABS for example stands for “Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene”, has anyone on this blog ever google searched Butadiene?
Chlorine is a halogen on the periodic table of elements and is a fantastic flame retardant which is inherent to the polymer. Meaning no other elements like Bromine (also a halogen) need to be added to the polymer to make it flame retardant is is the case with ABS. What other flame retardant materials would you use in your home to protect your family from an unanticipated fire? Asbestos? Lead? Bromine?
Thanks for your comment – but according to the University of York, ethylene is “produced from the cracking of fractions obtained from distillation of natural gas and oil.” So since ethylene comes from gas and oil, and is indeed one of the most important olefins produced by petrochemical refineries, I would assume that it’s o.k. to say that PVC is produced from petroleum? Not sure about your point regarding 1,3 butadiene – but the chemical “acrylonitrile butadiene styrene” is a plasticizer, used to make polymers hard (as in Legos, which my kids played with). We live in a chemical world, and though ABS is relatively safe (i.e., is stable and non-leaching), individual components are toxic (i.e., styrene) and then what do we do with them at end of life? If incinerated, tests done by the National Bureau of Standards show a “measurable degree of toxicity.”
Is it safe to use an empty steel drum that has residues of Ethylene Vinyl Acetate DA-310 as a compost maker. ? The residue has a pervasive sweet smell and can’t be washed out of the drum. I believe EVA to be bio-degradable. Regards
Hi Mike: we stick to textile issues, so can’t comment.
Hello, what are other PVC substitutes for shoes that are more eco friendly? Thank you
Hi Anna: Sorry, I don’t know.
Thank you very much for this detailled explanation. I was offered a yoga mat from “eco pvc” and guess what I did after reading your article?