Controversy usually accompanies discussions about when, how, or why polyvinyl chloride should or shouldn’t be used in various products, whether it’s packaging, medical products, or children’s toys. The disputes about PVC’s health and environmental impacts have matured and ripened over the years; it seems like the arguments for or against vinyl now all tend to connect to at least one of three main themes:
1.) Fixing the facts: Negative characteristics of PVC are well-publicized, and studies continue to be performed about the effects of PVC. Meanwhile, industry groups such as The Vinyl Institute are still quick to spotlight and correct exaggerations, distortions, and just plain misinformation from the critics of vinyl. Facts are facts, but this is like using a shovel to stop a landslide of negativity about PVC.
2.) Switching materials: Two recent Plastics News articles showed the slow but steady trend of packaging users moving from vinyl to non-vinyl materials. In one, toy-maker Hasbro reportedly will phase out vinyl from its core packaging (though not from its toys). This decision has the approval of giant retailer Wal-Mart, whose influence is driving more manufacturers to make these kinds of decisions.
In the medical arena, Kaiser Permanente will no longer purchase flexible vinyl I.V. bags or tubing that are plasticized with the phthalate DEHP, because of health concerns (though the company reportedly has not identified what phthalate-free materials it will accept instead). This move adds to the momentum of organizations like Greenpeace that have gone out of their way to position vinyl as the least-favored of all plastics.
3.) Hiding the vinyl: The terms “PVC” or “vinyl” have become marketing poison, making some marketers hesitant to provide clarity when PVC is a product constituent. For example, footwear-maker Okabashi specializes in plastic shoes, but when looking at its website you wouldn’t know that flexible vinyl appears to be its resin of choice. (The company, however, does make a big deal about its acceptance and recycling of used Okabashi sandals sent in by customers, while also emphasizing that its shoes are “vegan-friendly.”)
Meanwhile, tons of vinyl are being used every day in new building and constructions applications, many of which, like siding, are hidden in plain sight. Other PVC applications (like piping) are out of view behind walls, while still others, disguised as wood, sometimes lie literally right under the noses of people who object to PVC. For these applications, I guess out of sight is out of mind.
Mike Tolinski is the author of Plastics and Sustainability, published in Oct. 2011 by Wiley-Scrivener, and he is Contributing Editor for Plastics Engineering magazine of the Society of Plastics Engineers in the USA. His views have been shaped by his engineering, university, and journalism experience in the plastics and manufacturing industries over the past 21 years.