By Saada Branker
Last year, the bad rap surrounding plastic reached an all-time high when more than 25 million toys suspected of containing toxic ingredients such as lead paint hit the recall circuit. In December, Sears Holdings Corporation in the US joined a growing list of retailers and manufacturers who have pledged to phase out vinyl, also known as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), from their packaging and merchandise. Used for over 70 years in products such as plastic toys, vinyl siding, pipes, shower curtains, car interiors, wiring and hospital equipment (among other things), PVC is one of the most widely used and most controversial plastics on the market.
Other companies that have made similar moves involving PVC include Nike, Microsoft, Apple, Wal-Mart, Johnson & Johnson, General Motors and H&M. Sears Canada recently confirmed that it would follow its American counterpart’s lead, agreeing to identify “safer, more sustainable and cost-effective alternatives” and to incorporate them into the design and manufacturing of its private-label products and packaging. The motivating factor is growing consumer concern about the environmental and health risks associated with PVC products, specifically toxins that are released in the production process, chemicals that leach from toys into toddler’s mouths and unnecessary landfill waste that pollutes water and soil as it breaks down. Once lauded for its convenience and versatility, PVC has become the target of increased public scrutiny as concerns reign over how it’s made, how it withstands everyday use and how it can be safely disposed of.
“The reason PVC is a challenge is it’s an everywhere product,” says Aaron Freeman, a policy director with Canada’s Environmental Defence. That reality is not lost on Toronto, which doesn’t have the authority to ban PVC — that power falls within the overlapping jurisdictions of both the federal and provincial governments. So while retailers have started taking significant steps to reduce the use of vinyl, the city has seen its own phase-out of this controversial plastic through waste management and consumer awareness. In lieu of an all-out ban, a shift in thinking around toxic chemicals may be what really triggers an end to the pervasiveness of vinyl.
The contentious issue in any debate about PVC revolves around the chemicals associated with its life cycle. “It’s a loser in manufacturing, a loser in use and a loser in disposal,” says city councillor and long-time environmental activist Gord Perks. He’s referring to exposure to hazardous chemicals released during production, along with the concoction of toxic chemicals that are added to vinyl. In the mix are lead and cadmium to prevent deterioration in products such as vinyl siding and window blinds and phthalates, which help make the plastic pliable in items such as toys and shower curtains. Although the suspected carcinogenic and reproductive dangers of phthalates have been debated by scientists around the world, in 2005, the European Parliament voted to permanently ban the use of certain toxic phthalates in toys.
The additives in PVC products also impede the disposal process. “It’s not really a recyclable plastic,” argues Perks. Nor is it remotely biodegradable. “So, you’re left with putting it in the landfill or burning it,” he explains. “In terms of landfill all you’re really doing is diffusing the problem over generations as all the various additives and the vinyl itself leach into the environment over time.” A European Commission report published in 2000 said burning PVC releases highly contaminated ash residue and dioxins, a family of chemicals that can cause cancer and impair the reproductive and immune systems, a finding that is still being disputed by scientists and vinyl’s lobby groups.
One way that the city is indirectly helping to phase out PVC is through its residential recycling program, where collaboration and communication between the city and manufacturers has led to the use of better alternatives. PVC is not as common in household containers as it once was 10 years ago, says Toronto’s Solid-Waste general manager Geoff Rathbone. He explains the majority of clear bottles they see in the recycling program are polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) — plastic bottle jugs marked “1” or “2” on the bottom. PVC plastic is usually marked as “3.”
“Even a tiny amount of PVC causes a very serious contamination in our PET recycling program,” says Rathbone. One PVC bottle in the PET load can result in the rejection of an entire load, which would then have to be brought back and re-sorted. The estimated cost of re-handling that one load is about $5,000, he says. “It doesn’t happen that often, but certainly we encourage manufacturers to continue to move out of PVC primarily for that reason.”
An infrastructure for recycling PVC has yet to be established in building construction, an industry where vinyl dominates, but Marion Axmith, director general of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association is hopeful that this will change. “We’re trying to assist in setting [infrastructure] up since 70 per cent of vinyl goes into building and construction,” she says. There is now at least one pilot project for vinyl recovery underway in Ontario that aims to recapture, reuse or recycle material such as siding, window frames and pipes. The material gets shipped out, grounded up and sold off in an effort to help contractors avoid landfill fee payments in their waste disposal. Axmith says they’re trying to comply with the province’s 60 per cent waste-diversion target suggested for the construction-building industry. There is no health risk to grinding up PVC, she says, but admits that it is a challenge to recycle material that hasn’t been contaminated by mud or nails.
Axmith discredits the common health and environmental concerns about PVC. “Vinyl is one of the most thoroughly tested plastics on the market today,” she says. “It’s been around for at least 50 years and found to be safe in its various uses. It’s very closely managed in the manufacturing phase, and through to the end of its life, where it can be safely recycled. I think there are groups out there that are putting pressure on retailers without providing the scientific evidence to support a possible phase-out.”
Toronto isn’t home to any large-sized PVC manufacturers but a campaign raising awareness of toxics is currently being proposed to City Council. The Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) and Toronto Board of Health are lobbying for a system that would give residents a right to know about the companies handling and storing chemicals within their midst. And while it doesn’t focus solely on PVC, vinyl chloride does make TEA’s list of toxics.
Lina Cino, TEA’s toxics campaign coordinator says council is exploring a proposal to have Toronto-based companies publicly disclose their annual pollution releases. If passed, the Community Right To Know bylaw would be a comprehensive web-based program, similar to the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) that exists at the federal level. The municipal bylaw would include companies that don’t make it on the NPRI radar. The Toronto Board of Health wrapped up its collection of public feedback on the idea last week and Cino says they’re hoping the proposal reaches city council for a vote by fall of this year.
“Our goal is to reduce toxic chemicals in our environment,” says Cino. “It’s been shown in the States that with public scrutiny, companies will start to reduce their toxic chemical use, because there are safe substitutes out there.”
It may not be a ban, but because of retailers’ policies and grassroots organizing, phasing-out of PVC is more possible than ever before, says Freeman of Environmental Defence.
“One way or another, I think consumers will lead the way,” he says. “Whether it’s through market pressure, individual choice or pushing governments to make the right decisions, the tide is certainly turning on chemicals like PVC.”