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The poison plastic

Background - 2 June, 2003
PVC (polyvinyl chloride), often called 'vinyl', is the second most commonly used plastic in the world. It is also the most harmful to the environment.

Activists block Termials Pty Ltd, major supplier of feedstock to PVC industry.

PVC production began rising rapidly in the 60s. As other products made with industrial chlorine have been banned or phased out (PCBs, CFCs and chlorinated solvents), the chloralkali industry has turned to PVC as the "sink" it needs for its excess chlorine.

PVC production is increasing, particularly in Asia and Latin America. Today more than 30 percent of the world's chlorine production is used to make PVC.

PVC has displaced a broad range of other, less problematic materials such as glass, metal, paper, ceramics, and wood and it obstructs the use of chorine-free plastics.

The largest use of PVC is in building materials such as cables, window frames, doors, walls, panelling, water and wastewater pipes. It is also used in home products - such as PVC flooring, PVC wallpaper, window blinds and shower curtains.

PVC is used for consumer articles such as credit cards, records imitation leather, garden furniture and toys. It is also used in the office for furniture, binders, folders, and pens. The car industry uses PVC, especially as underseal, and it can be found in hospitals for medical disposables, and as cable and wire insulation.

PVC is one of the world's largest dioxin sources. This group of chemicals is some of the most toxic chemicals ever released into the environment. Dioxins are created when PVC plastic is burned in incinerators, household stoves, open rubbish (trash) burning, and accidental fires in buildings and vehicles. Dioxins are created during the manufacture of PVC so that production wastes are rich with dioxins and other highly toxic contaminants.

Toxic chemical additives are incorporated within PVC products. PVC production is increasing worldwide and is now the world's single largest use of industrial chlorine.

PVC lifecycle

Of all the plastics, PVC plastic or vinyl is the most environmentally damaging. Throughout its lifecycle it requires hazardous chemicals for production, releases harmful additives and creates toxic wastes. The disturbing fact is that its production is increasing worldwide despite the fact that safer, more feasible alternatives currently exist for almost all PVC products.

Production

The production of PVC powder involves the transport of dangerous explosive materials such as vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) and the creation of toxic waste, notably ethylene dichloride (EDC) tars. Tar wastes in particular, contain huge quantities of dioxins that are then incinerated or dumped, spreading dioxins into the wider environment.

Previously these tar wastes were burned on ocean incineration vessels until a worldwide ban was imposed in 1991. The ban was due to their toxic emissions and threat to the marine ecosystem. These wastes are now burned in land incinerators or dumped into deep wells.

Then, numerous additives are incorporated into the PVC to make a wide variety of products. Some of these additives are softeners (plasticisers) to make it soft and pliable, heavy metals as stabilisers or to give it colour, and fungicides to stop fungi from eating the other additives. So the production of PVC also involves a huge secondary toxic manufacturing industry.

PVC manufacturing and dioxin

In 1989, it was discovered that dioxins were generated in the process of manufacturing PVC. The dioxins end up in some of the process wastes and, in some instances, in the PVC itself.

The wastes produced at ICI's plant contain high levels of dioxins. Greenpeace found a similar picture in 1994 and in 1996 when it investigated the PVC industry in the US.

In The Netherlands, the manufacture of vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) caused extensive dioxin contamination of Rotterdam Harbour.

In Venice, Greenpeace analysed sediment from the Porto Marghera. It clearly showed contamination of the lagoon with dioxin by the Enichem plant, where VCM is among the chlorinated chemicals manufactured.

In 1998, a judge ordered the closure of the main waste pipe discharging waste from PVC production from two companies, Enichem and EVC. The order was lifted after discussions with the companies.

The Environmental Ministry of Lower Saxony found extremely high levels of dioxins in sludge from the waste water treatment plant for European Vinyls Corporation's PVC production at Wilhelmshaven, Germany in 1994. Dioxin was also found in a dump where these sludges were disposed of.

Use

As well as environmentally damaging, PVC consumer products also present a hazard to consumers. Plasticisers are not bound to the plastic and can leach out over time. For instance, plasticisers in PVC flooring will evaporate into the room. The most common plasticiser (phthalate DEHP), is a suspected carcinogen. Phthalate softeners are global contaminants and over 90 percent are used solely to make soft PVC plastic.

Recently, many governments have banned soft PVC baby toys and teethers because of the risk of softeners leaking into infants' mouths, when sucked or chewed.

Disposal

The disposal of PVC creates more environmental problems. If burned (either in open fires or incinerators), PVC will release an acidic gas along with dioxins, due to its chlorine content. If landfilled, it eventually releases additives, which can then threaten groundwater supplies. Landfill fires involving PVC are a further source of dioxin. For more information see PVC waste and recycling.

Recycling

PVC recycling is neither technically nor financially feasible. Currently less than 1 percent of PVC is materially 'recycled'. Post-consumer products or PVC waste products cannot be recycled into the same quality, as PVC requires virgin PVC to make a product of similar quality. The majority of this collected waste is 'downcycled' or used to manufacture 'inferior' products such as garden benches and sound barriers along highways.

Many recycled PVC products have to be restabilised with toxic heavy metal compounds or other stabilisers. This further increases the range of hazardous components in the secondary product.

For more information on the problems of recycling PVC see 'waste and recycling'.

PVC and dioxin

Dioxins are created when PVC is produced, recycled and disposed of in incinerators, and when PVC products burn in accidental fires such as landfill fires.

Dioxins are now present throughout the environment and the food chain. Everyone is exposed to them in their diets, particularly through fatty foods such as dairy, meat, fish and eggs.

TCDD, the most lethal form of the dioxin family, is a known human carcinogen and hormone disrupter and is recognised as the most toxic synthetic compound ever produced. All humans and animals now carry body burdens of TCDD and other dioxins.

During 9-12 July, 1997, at least 400 tonnes of PVC were burned in a fire at Plastimet Inc, Hamilton, Ontario (Canada). The facility was storing bales of "jet trimmings" from a manufacturer of automobile interiors. Analysis of soot and ash samples after the PVC fire at the plant, revealed levels of dioxin 66 times higher than permitted even for industrial land. This one fire increased the annual dioxin emissions for the whole of Canada by 4 percent in 1997. Residents were advised not to eat local garden produce or allow their children to play on the grass.

More on the fire and resulting dioxin pollution from the see the Hotspots map.

Even during small house fires considerable amounts of dioxin can form because PVC is present in interior furnishings and products such as floorings and wallpapers, and electrical equipment such as cables. The hydrochloric acid formed when PVC is burned, can lead to life threatening lung damage and causes serious corrosion to buildings.

The first local authority restriction on PVC use in public buildings occurred in the town of Bielefeld, Germany in 1986. This restriction occurred after a fire in a bowling alley, which left a costly and dangerous dioxin cleanup problem.

In 1993 the German Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) recommended that in the long run, "PVC products should be substituted by other materials in all areas where the potential dioxin and hydrogen chloride formation in case of fire poses a substantial risk for human health and the environment."

Fires at landfills are frequent occurrences, even in industrialised countries. For example, the US EPA recently estimated that landfill fires contribute to 20 percent of dioxin releases into the air.

Based on estimates by the US EPA, the burning of household wastes in open barrels and piles, is the source of almost one-fourth of dioxin releases to air in the US. The Agency's studies show PVC as the major source of chlorine available for dioxin formation.

No such estimates have been made in Europe. However, according to the European Dioxin Inventory, "The extent of co-combustion of household wastes is almost unknown and should be assessed … since this practice may influence considerably the PCDD/F emissions from stoves and fireplaces."

In Sweden, some 54 percent of dioxin releases to air are from residential stoves that burn wood and unknown quantities of household wastes.