PVC has been heavily opposed by many who regard it as inherently harmful to the environment and / or to human health. So why is an international sustainable development NGO like The Natural Step engaging businesses in the PVC debate?
It was because of stakeholder concerns that The Natural Step became involved in the first place. We stand for a whole-systems approach to sustainability and the framework we promote is ideally suited as a testing ground for debating widely differing views and their underlying assumptions. We used it to ask the question does PVC have a place in a sustainable society? And our answer is yes – for specific applications and if a range of sustainability challenges can be overcome.
You can read more of our comments on the controversy, the potential, the challenges and the need for action below:
PVC has been heavily opposed by many who regard it as inherently harmful to the environment and / or to human health. It was because of those kind of concerns that The Natural Step became involved in the first place – using our approach and related ‘system conditions’ for sustainability as a testing ground for widely differing views and their underlying assumptions. We asked the question does PVC have a place in a sustainable society? And our answer is yes – if a range of sustainability challenges can be overcome.
PVC is used throughout society and has some specific attributes that could usefully be exploited to contribute to sustainable development. The PVC polymer is cheap, easy to produce with limited energy, lightweight, strong, durable, inherently flame resistant, has potential to be recycled, and has an inert matrix as its base. For some types of application, it shows promise. For long-life infrastructure we need durable and subsequently reusable or recyclable materials. Pipes used for clean water supply and construction materials such as windows are good examples where PVC can perform better than alternatives from many perspectives (long life span, requires little additional chemical and energy inputs from maintenance, and if recycled, PVC is also likely to have less harmful impact on the environment). In this regard the properties of PVC that enable both physical and chemical recycling add to its sustainability potential.
If PVC is to become a true contributor to a sustainable society, a set of sustainability challenges must be overcome. We identified 5 major challenges for PVC in our 2000 report PVC: An Evaluation using The Natural Step Framework (see further information below) and note that these challenges are not inherent to the material itself, but stem from it not currently being uniformly produced, used, or managed (as with most other materials). It should also be said that it is not correct to look at PVC as one material. While the PVC molecule itself is always the same, the PVC that is used in products can be varied in thousands of ways depending on the additives used to achieve specific properties; these additives may constitute as much as 50% of the mass of some PVC applications. Furthermore, there are different methods of production of the PVC molecule itself which have different ‘footprints’. It would be correct to say that there are ‘worse’ and ‘better’ PVC compounds and production processes, but this can be said about most, if not all, materials. The question is under which conditions can PVC be produced, used and managed sustainably?
There are other materials that could be used instead of PVC in some applications. However, this doesn’t mean that a switch is automatically better, or that PVC cannot become the more sustainable option in the longer run. All materials have their sustainability challenges, some with bigger impacts than others. We encourage and assist companies to choose their materials carefully based on a holistic understanding of the challenges connected to each material in the context of their product and its use. Materials (PVC or otherwise) should be selected on the basis that the material can be, or has the potential to be, produced, used and managed sustainably throughout the product’s entire life cycle. This means that PVC may be the right alternative in one context (typically durable applications) and the wrong alternative in another (such as single use short-lived applications, or where challenges are more difficult to overcome). Regardless, the same criteria and rigour for assessment should be applied to evaluate the choice.
The need for action
The challenges for PVC are significant, but not impossible to overcome. As we are dealing with a material that is ubiquitous and already providing a range of sustainability benefits in many of its common uses, it is important that progress is accelerated. Society needs this industry to make progress, develop alternatives and deal with the challenges.