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The poison plastic | How PVC damages the planet

Greenpeace has waged a 20-year campaign against PVC so why does it make up over 40% of the UK commercial flooring market?

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Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is uniquely damaging to the planet. It’s an organochlorine - made from chlorine and petroleum - and is part of a family that includes DDT pesticides and other neurotoxicants that have been banned by health authorities around the world. It has been dubbed as “The Poison Plastic” by Greenpeace and designated as the most environmentally damaging of all of the plastics.

Bodies across the world are making moves to prohibit or limit the use of PVC. This includes a total ban on the use of PVC throughout Europe which has been proposed by the EU as a part of a review of the Reach chemical regulations.

Despite these persistent and growing concerns, the use of PVC in construction accounts for 75% of its global production. In the flooring sector, PVC is the basis for sheet vinyl, safety floors, vinyl tiles (LVT) and woven vinyl. Together, they account for over 40% of commercial flooring installed in the UK every year.


Embodied Carbon

Materials made from hydrocarbons have high carbon footprints, measured by their Global Warming Potential. This gives PVC flooring a carbon footprint of more than 30 CO2 kg/m2. It’s estimated that, as a result, its use in UK commercial projects generates over 500,000 tonnes of avoidable CO2 emissions per year.

A single, large PVC plant in the industrialised area in South Louisiana, known as ‘Cancer Alley’, was shown to be capable of releasing an estimated 12,363,192 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

Risks to Health

A number of hazardous by-products are formed in the production of PVC including Dioxins. These are considered to be the most dangerous of substances - there is no safe dose - and are persistent and bioaccumulative. Their negative health effects are significant and include cancer, reproductive impairment and birth defects.

PVC is included in Living Building Challenge Red List - the worst in class construction materials - because it’s a known carcinogen and persistent organic pollutant.

Indoor Air

A recent study carried out by Dukes University showed evidence that vinyl floors emit concerning levels of SVOCs (semi-volatile organic compounds) emissions from vinyl flooring. Children from homes that had vinyl flooring in all areas were found to have concentrations of benzyl butyl phthalate metabolite in their urine that were 15 times higher than those in children living with no vinyl flooring.

End of Life

PVC flooring is a single-use plastic. There is no practicable way that vinyl can be removed and recycled after it has been adhered. So, at end of life, these materials are incinerated or sent to landfill. Both of these are options are problematical.

PVC takes centuries to biodegrade during which time it leaches potentially toxic substances into soil and groundwater. Incineration releases dioxins and other toxins that can escape into the atmosphere.


Cleaner Alternatives

For those who are concerned about the negative impacts of PVC, there are many good alternatives without the carbon footprint and the other damaging impacts on the planet.

To explore the design options click here

PVC is an abuse of science


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