Wednesday, August 01, 2007

How To Handle Vinyl

by Danielle Masterson
The Green Guide
July 27, 2007

"Reduce, reuse, recycle" may be a good mantra, but when it comes to plastics, the three R's may not always be enough. While #1 PET and #2 HDPE plastics are commonly recycled, #3 PVC plastics (or vinyl) can be difficult, if not altogether impossible, to recycle.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is present in countless household products like shower curtains, tiles, bags and toys, not to mention piping and automobile interiors. Sadly, PVC is among the most eco-unfriendly plastics and some varieties can release brain-damaing lead and hormone-disrupting phthalates while in use at home. Its disposal is particularly problematic given that, if incinerated, it will release carcinogenic dioxin and other contaminants into the environment (your sanitation department or garbage hauler can tell you if your garbage is incinerated). Yet when it comes to recycling vinyl, you have to wonder if recycling doesn't just postpone its ultimate disposal, putting the burden on someone else's shoulders.

Recycling Woes

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, plastics accounted for 11.8 percent of municipal solid waste in 2005. Whereas some plastics like PET bottles were recycled at a rate of 34.1 percent, the rate for PVC was less than 1 percent per year. When you consider that the U.S. produced 16 billion pounds of PVC in 2004, the amount landfilled is staggering.

"We don't recommend landfilling PVC because many PVC products contain chemicals that are heavy metals that leach into groundwater over time," says Anne Rabe of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. "Further problems can occur if there is a large fire at a landfill, which can cause PVC to release dioxins into the air."

Allen Blakey of the Vinyl Institute disputes these claims. "Landfilling PVC is safe," he says, citing a 1999 study published in Plastics, Rubber and Composites, which found some leaching of phthalates and organotins but not of heavy metals.

While the Vinyl Institute claims that all types of vinyl products can be recycled, very few recycling centers exist to accept these materials, which begs the question: Why aren't facilities springing up to meet the needs of PVC recycling?

"Like anything else, recycling PVC is more challenging at the post-consumer end," Blakey says, noting that the trade association for the large-diameter PVC pipe industry has a takeback program for old pipes, recycling them to make new pipes. "Recycling something like a vinyl shower curtain would be difficult because it would be hard to get a critical mass of it." For example, at Transworld Plastics in Williamsville, N.Y., post-consumer vinyl is recycled into rigid PVC and then sent to manufacturers that can make use of it. But in order for Transworld to accept vinyl from residential recycling programs, it must be collected in quantities of 20,000 to 40,000 pounds.

Rabe notes additional recycling dilemmas: "PVC can contaminate whole loads of higher grade plastics, downgrading their quality." If the plastic melts, notes Mike Schade, CHEJ's PVC campaign coordinator, dangerous additives, such as cadmium, can contaminate other recyclable plastics. "One PVC bottle can contaminate a recycling load of 100,000 recyclable bottles," Shade says.

What You Can Do

Rather than recycling or tossing PVC items, like old vinyl curtains and floor tiles, in the trash, Schade recommends disposing of them in hazardous waste landfill sites. Call your sanitation department or state environmental agency to see where you might dispose of hazardous material.

CHEJ also suggests returning PVC products and packaging to retailers and manufacturers. "We recommend consumers contact manufacturers and let them know that PVC is an unacceptably toxic material and that it should not be used in production," says Rabe. "As consumers, they can also send that message by not purchasing products packaged or made from PVC." Look for the number 3 in the recycling symbol or the letter "V."

This is becoming an easier task already. Rabe points out that there are a number of PVC alternatives already on the market. For example, Ikea now sells non-PVC shower curtains exclusively.

Some manufacturers have already heard the calls for a halt to PVC use in production. The Center for Health, Environment and Justice has successfully worked with Victoria's Secret and Microsoft to eliminate PVC from their packaging and is currently in talks with Target, Sears and Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has already committed to eliminating PVC in its private-label-product packaging in two years.

RELATED
Is My PVC Pipe Dangerous? by Samuel Frank
Who is Going To Recycle My Toaster? by Samuel Frank

© 2007 National Geographic Society

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