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Where Does Vinyl Come From? A Look at the Environmental Impact of PVC

What is PVC?

Polyvinyl chloride (more commonly known as PVC) is a prevalent building material used for windows. According to PVC Europe, the global usage of PVC annually is approximately 35 million tons. A common use of the material is in vinyl window frames, as PVC is known for its durability and resistance to damage from moisture, weather, and animals. Although weather and dirt have been known to change the material’s appearance, the change is purely aesthetic. Its weather resistance has made PVC is a very popular material, particularly in New England. One negative to using PVC is that, should it become damaged, it is not easily repaired, and is often entirely replaced as a result.

How does PVC affect the environment?

While PVC has many advantages as a building material, the process of manufacturing it has significant environmental implications. Through a process of chemical reaction, the gas vinyl chloride—the building block of PVC—is created. Vinyl chloride is known to cause health issues, specifically cancer, but, if it is properly contained within the manufacturing facility, people are not exposed to it. Unfortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that the containment at these plants is not foolproof; sometimes vinyl chloride escapes into the surrounding environment.

While PVC on average may be less environmentally friendly than wood, its advantages as a building material, particularly in New England, are significant. When PVC is the material of choice based on the conditions of a particular project, it can be used with an eye toward minimizing environmental impact by choosing products from companies that have good records of environmental stewardship.

PVC manufacturers and suppliers

A leading manufacturer of PVC window frames that is based in New England, Harvey Building Products, is known for their use of recycled PVC. This has a significantly smaller impact on the environment than that of virgin resin PVC because it does not require the production of additional vinyl chloride. Harvey tracks and recycles pre-consumer PVC in order to keep waste to a minimum in the manufacturing process. Their environmental footprint could be further reduced by reexamining their use of water for window stress tests. Rather than using drinking-quality water for these tests, using lower quality water or reusing water would lessen their impact.

Oxy Vinyls Canada, a major PVC production facility and the principal source used by Harvey, has no recorded incidents of leakage or health issues associated with their manufacturing process. Adherence to laws and advances in technology make PVC production safer for workers and the environment.

Recycling PVC at the end of its life cycle is another important step. Look for information about the recycling process in our next blog post.

Information in this post is drawn from a research paper prepared for Boston Building Resources in 2015: Hannah Chambless, Anthony Frascotti, Claire Hodson and Gracie Villa, "Letting the Light in: An Investigative Report on the Externalities of PVC Windows," Boston College, College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Earth and Environmental Science.

—Sean Yarolin