What’s PVC?

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PVC is a versatile and affordable plastic used in many products, but its toxic manufacturing process, non-biodegradable nature, and potential for harmful chemical leaching make it an environmental and health concern. Alternatives like wood, paper, and chlorine-free plastics are being considered.

Polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC or vinyl, is an affordable plastic so versatile that it has become completely pervasive in modern society. The list of products made of PVC is exhaustive and ranges from phonograph records to drainage and drinking pipes, water bottles, transparent film, credit cards and toys. Other uses include window frames, gutters, wall paneling, doors, wallpapers, flooring, patio furniture, binders and even pens. Faux leather is also made of it. In fact, it’s hard to wander anywhere without seeing some form of this plastic.

In 1913, polyvinyl chloride became the first synthetic product ever patented. Its wide use is now under question, however, as it comes from a highly toxic manufacturing industry and potentially remains an environmental threat at all stages of its life. In addition to the toxic chemical processing required to make PVC, growing research points to a tendency for some products to leach harmful chemicals, with a possible link to health risks and environmental contamination.

Additionally, PVC is not biodegradable, a fact that manufacturers promote as an asset, while environmentalists count it among many of the plastic’s disadvantages. They point to the ever-increasing amounts of discarded produce and the reduction of landfills and the potential for long-term leeching that could lead to groundwater contamination. This material must not be burned, as it can release harmful gases and recycling is difficult due to the different additives used in the various products.

One of the by-products of the polyvinyl chloride manufacturing process is organochloride. Although chlorine occurs naturally in the environment in minerals such as salt, this type is different. Highly reactive, its effect in concentrated form can be very destructive, as seen in other manufacturing industries. Some familiar forms of organochlorines include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), banned in the 1970s; halon and CFC, responsible for the destruction of ozone; and DDT. Supposedly, the production of PVC results in the generation of more organochlorines than any other material.

Besides the environment, human health is also a concern. Studies are underway on the initial outgassing of chemicals from plastics such as those used in vinyl shower curtains, flooring and car interiors. The release of a softening chemical called DEHP (di-2-ethyl hexyl phthalate) in products such as the vinyl IV bags used in the neonatal wards of some hospitals has also been a concern. The industry is reportedly considering alternative softening agents, but they require further testing.

Although polyvinyl chloride products have been used with no apparent concern for human health for many years, the concern is that the growth of toxic waste created by the process, possible leeches and the non-biodegradable state of the plastic will eventually and inevitably lead to to problems that could be catastrophic. The conservative trend is directed towards biodegradable and environmentally friendly alternatives. Among others, these include wood, paper, copper, steel and clay. Chlorine-free plastics, such as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and polyisobutylene, may also be preferred to PVC, although most of these are not biodegradable.

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