When Phil and I rented the documentary Blue Vinyl from Crazy Mike’s Video Store a few years ago, I thought it was going to be about Elvis. This was confusing to me since I had been assigned to watch it for an environmental politics class, but somehow I was sure ‘Blue Vinyl’ had something to do with Elvis, ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ and hit records. I was ready for two hours of hip-shaking, guitar-strokin’ Elvis.
But when the movie started there was no Elvis in sight. Instead there was a slightly pudgy, sassy Jewish woman harassing her parents. Turns out, Blue Vinyl is not about Elvis. It is, however, one of the most clever documentary films I’ve seen. It manages to be hilarious while talking about a very serious issue (a tough job, as any good trashblogger knows). It chronicles Judith Helfand’s journey to stop her parents from using vinyl siding on their house.
And why does Judith care so much about vinyl siding? She cares because she believes vinyl (aka polyvinyl chloride, or PVC) is toxic. And we are exposed to it daily. PVC is not only is used in piping, and house siding, but also in a number of common household objects – toys, shower curtains, electrical wiring. In fact, PVC is plastic #3, so any item you have with a 3 in that triangle symbol contains PVC.
This movie changed Mike Schade’s life. Mike Schade works for the Center for Health and Environmental Justice in New York City on their PVC protection campaign, and says he was also inspired by this movie. He now lobbies for the elimination of PVC from children’s toys. We met with Mike to discuss what happens to PVC in landfills and incinerators.
By now, you may be asking: is vinyl toxic? There is a big debate on this. I think this article well describes the various arguments. In summary, there is no real debate around whether or not PVC contains toxic substances. It does (importantly dioxins, phthalates, and VCM), and the EPA has classified it as a known carcinogen. The debate is around whether this matters. Some argue that these toxins are securely bound up in PVC products and not actively releasing anything dangerous; others are not so easily soothed. CHEJ’s 2004 report well sums up the concerns many have about PVC’s toxicity.
We were most interested to find out what happens to PVC when thrown away. According to CHEJ, over 2 million tons of PVC are landfilled in the US each year. Another 250,000 tons are incinerated.
Burning seems to be the worst thing that can happen to PVC as this releases its toxic substances and makes them airborne. PVC may burn in a variety of ways – building and house fires, incinerators, landfill fires, or in uncontrolled burns (i.e. backyard burns, etc). Vinyl supporters point out that many materials are toxic when burned, and vinyl shouldn’t be singled out for this. Further, they suggest that toxins are only made airborne when burning is not done ‘properly,’ which leave out landfill and house fires and backyard burning.
Another concern is that landfilled PVC may leach toxic materials into groundwater as it degrades (read all about this here). This is particularly worrisome as so much PVC ends up in construction and demolition debris, often disposed of in unlined landfills which provide even less groundwater protection. On the other hand, vinyl supporters argue that degradation is unlikely, and landfill liners actually frequently contain PVC.
Finally, if you think recycling may be the answer, PVC turns out to be extremely difficult to recycle – estimates suggest that only 0.1% ro 3% of PVC is recycled. In addition, PVC significantly gums up other plastic recycling processes, ruining batches of plastic bottles that could have been turned into something else.
PVC is one of the more high profile materials when it comes to toxicity and disposal concerns. How many other things are we throwing away that we know even less about?