Polyvinyl chloride, more commonly known as PVC or vinyl, is used with prevalence in New England because it is highly weather-resistant and not easily damaged. When vinyl windows reach the end of their lifespans and need to be replaced, homeowners should understand the environmental impact of disposing of PVC and how the process works, so they can be sure that these materials are handled responsibly.
PVC is a 100% recyclable product. Because the creation of new PVC and the incineration of old material can both lead to significant negative environmental and/or health impacts, recycling is ideal. The creation of PVC involves the chemical vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. The incineration of PVC—or simply allowing it to sit in a landfill for an extended period of time—results in the release of the dioxin, also a powerful health and environmental hazard. But by recycling PVC, both of these risks are greatly decreased.
Proper recycling involves sending the material to a processing facility after it reaches the end of its useful life (generally between 10 and 20 years). There, the PVC itself is separated from other materials, such as glass and metal, and treated to remove impurities. The PVC can then either be ground up such that it can be melted and formed into new products, or chemically dissolved into its basic elements and reconstituted as PVC or other materials. PVC can be recycled many times.
Because recycling PVC is significantly preferable to other options, homeowners are encouraged to take an active interest in where they (or their contractors) will take their old vinyl windows and what will become of them. Locally, James G. Grant Co. in Hyde Park can process PVC windows for recycling. Regardless of how it gets there, it’s important for both the environment and your health that used PVC end up in a recycling plant, not in a landfill or incinerator. Before replacing vinyl windows, discuss the logistics of disposal with your contractor to ensure that the material is being handled responsibly.
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.