Vinyl Angst

Posted on: October 10th, 2007 by Patrice Frey

Blissfully, this morning the Trust’s e-mail is down. (Not that I don’t enjoy each of the 150 messages I get every day, but it’s good to get away from it.) So I’ll take this opportunity to skip the Morning Roundup – since much of my news comes from Google Alerts dumped in my inbox -- and talk about something that’s really bothering me and still very relevant to discussions about green building: vinyl, and specifically the vinyl I now own.

I just bought a teeny tiny condo in a historic building. I adore it. The problem? My closet doors are made of vinyl – that nasty substance made from PVC, or poly vinyl chloride that is sometimes referred to as the “poison plastic.” PVC is a derived from fossil fuel – usually oil or natural gas -- and chlorine. The PVC manufacturing process produces highly toxic (read carcinogenic) chemicals, especially dioxins. And it’s the gift that keeps on giving because at the end of its life cycle, PVCs release even more dioxins if they are incinerated. According to the US Green Building Council, burning PVCs in landfills may now be the single largest source of dioxin release in the United States.

There are claims that PVC has been linked to cancer and birth defects, though not everyone agrees there is conclusive evidence of its toxicity. For example, vinyl manufacturers insist that the manufacturing of vinyl is highly-regulated and well controlled process, and does not present a public health hazard in the manufacturing, use, or disposal stages of it life cycle. I trust them, don’t you?

PVC is the material of choice for window manufacturers – witness those vinyl windows you see everywhere. Some green building advocates sing the praises of these windows because of their thermal resistance, while others have smartened-up about vinyl's enormous life cycle costs. For a thoughtful commentary on the choice between vinyl and wood windows – see the House In Progress Diary, a blog on the renovation of a 1900 bungalow.

So back to my problem – vinyl closet doors. They mock me and my environmental sensibilities, and I long to replace them with some wood doors – even a curtain would be better. But instead, I'm stuck with them. Because being stuck with them -- forever -- is the most environmentally responsible thing to do, since there isn't anywhere dispose of them safely. And that’s exactly the problem with Vinyl.

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