Exposing the dirty path of PVC

Feature story - September 6, 2002
PVC doesn't look dangerous in the shop -- but look closely.

Plastic PVC bottles.

When it ends up pumped out of factories in the form of clean-looking, coloured window blinds, electrical cables or children's toys, there is little evidence of the dirty and dangerous path PVC has taken to reach its retail shape. Few think of how it will end, too - in the landfill or burned in an incinerator, with no possibility of recycling. Today Greenpeace activists peacefully exposed one of the main steps in the manufacture of the toxic plastic by blocking the Rhone a Fos canal in Port-de-Bouc, France.

Atofina, a subsidiary of the petrochemical giant TotalFinaElf, is better known for the explosion at their fertiliser plant in Tolouse one year ago, which killed 30 people and injured thousands. They are the largest PVC producers in France, which includes the manufacture of its "building block", vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) as well as toxic additives used for giving PVC different properties in the manufacturing process.

VCM is a carcinogenic and highly explosive gas which is carried in quantities of 2500 tonnes in a barge, three or four times a week along the Rhone river between Marseille and Lyon. These transports expose unaware communities along the river, with no proper safety legislation to protect them, and today we were determined to denounce this hazardous and irresponsible practice.

Today, beginning early morning, Greenpeace activists peacefully blocked for 14 hours the Barcarin lock, on the Rhone a Fos canal, to stop one of the VCM barges from going up the Rhone River to Lyon. The activists unfurled a banner saying "Atofina - Stop PVC". Forced from its original route along populated centers, and prevented from going through the locks, the 2500-ton barge laden with explosive products finally moored in harbour 1, in front of the GDF methane globe, endangering safety and in spite of Grenpeace's stated wish that it return to its origin at the petrochemical port. "The director of the Atofina factory decided that the barge and its cargo were no longer under his responsibility, but that of the transporter", commented Yannick Vicaire, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace France. "It is a transfer of responsibilities that is incompatible with the safety of dangerous transports".

PVC is a chlorinated plastic that poses numerous environmental and health problems. Numerous toxic additives used in PVC products contribute to contamination of the environment and the dioxins released by incineration of wastes to contamination of the human body. The market price of PVC does not reflect this - all the costs to human health and the environment are (or will be) paid by someone else. Given that all uses of PVC are substitutable by safe or less problematic materials, is there any reason to keep making this dangerous plastic? "The risks to the workers of Atofina and the public are inadmissible because there are enormous hazards with no benefits to society from the production of this plastic", said Vicaire.

"We won't negotiate under threat" declared the head of Atofina Lavera. The real threat, though, is not peaceful protesters but Atofina's transports of VCM four times a week, exposing unaware communities to high risks not even covered by a proper industrial safety legislation. Fittingly, Atofina's parent company, TotalFinaElf, is no angel either. It was responsible for the Erika oil spill in 1999, the Total La Mède refinery explosion in 1992 and is accused of serious human rights violation in Myanmar (Burma).

"Our action on Thursday is only the first episode in a peaceful struggle against the wrongdoings of the PVC industry", concluded Vicaire.