PVC Environmental Frequently Asked Questions
What does 'PVC' stand for?
Polyvinyl chloride. PVC is commonly referred to as vinyl and the two names can be used interchangeably. Vinyl resin can be combined with a wide range of other materials such as plasticisers, stabilisers, lubricants and colorants depending on the requirements of the end product. Not all vinyl products use the same combination of materials.
How much manufactured chlorine goes into the PVC industry?
Worldwide, about 35% of chlorine produced is used in the PVC industry. Chlorine is one of the most commonly occurring elements. Man-made chlorine is vital to many industries producing valuable modern products.
Can people working in the PVC industry contract cancer from vinyl chloride monomer (VCM)?
Vinyl chloride monomer was found to be a carcinogenic substance in the early 1970s. Prolonged and high exposure among those working with the material in the PVC industry was found to cause a rare form of cancer, angiosarcoma of the liver. Once the link was discovered, industry and governments quickly took action to reduce the level of potential exposure. Exposure limits are now below one-thousandth of what they used to be, and no cases of the cancer are known to have been detected in workers joining the industry since that time.
Do VCM or PVC factories emit large amounts of dioxins into the environment?
No. Studies in Australia, the US, UK and the Netherlands have shown that only very small amounts of dioxin can be attributed to VCM or PVC production. Dioxin emissions in Europe and the US have halved in the last thirty years while PVC production has increased 300%. In Australia, it is estimated that 60-80% of dioxin emissions to air arise from agricultural burning off, residential wood combustion and bushfires. The manufacture in Australia of all chemicals based on chlorine (i.e. halogen chemicals) contributes less than 1% to the total. Read more in PVC and Dioxins.
Are dioxins present in the PVC that is used to make everyday products?
No. Dioxins have not been found in PVC polymer at the limits of detection, even using today’s highly advanced measurement techniques. Read more in PVC and Dioxins.
Is PVC cling film safe?
Yes. Plasticised PVC films have been a major contributor to food safety, having properties that both protect and preserve food. Any material used to package food may result in some transfer of its constituents to the foodstuff. The migration of plasticiser from PVC film is at levels which are considered harmless by international health and legislative authorities. All Australian-made films comply with Australian Standard for Plastics and Food Contact, AS 2070.
What are plasticisers and why does PVC require them?
To make PVC soft and flexible, plasticisers are added. A number of different products are used as plasticisers including categories of chemicals known as phthalates (or phthalate esters), citrates and adipates.
Environment groups claim that plasticisers used in PVC disrupt the human hormone system. If there’s any risk of this, should we still be using these substances in PVC?
Phthalate plasticisers have been used worldwide for over forty years and have been extensively studied for health effects. Phthalates are a group of chemicals, each having its own safety and toxicity profile although they can be grouped according to molecular weight into High Molecular Weight (HMW) and Low Molecular Weight (LMW) phthalates. It appears from scientific studies that phthalates generally do not have significant effects on the female hormone, oestrogen. Research has turned instead to the possibility of androgenic effects (that is, effects on the male hormone). Early studies suggest effects may be possible in laboratory animals fed high doses of LMW phthalates. There is some concern about some specific human exposures to DEHP, a LMW phthalate. Refer to the sections on phthalate plasticisers and plasticisers in toys for more detail.
Lead has been known to have been used in PVC products. Should we be concerned?
Lead compounds were traditionally used as heat stabilisers, primarily in rigid PVC such as pipes and gutters. They have been used safely for decades. The stabiliser is tightly bound into the PVC matrix limiting leaching from the surface of PVC and their use is not considered to have contributed significantly to lead in the environment. However, given the community's concern about lead as a toxic hevay metal, and the potential for workers to be exposed to lead in stabiliser manufacturing and use, the industry in Australia (and elsewhere) committed to phase out its use in PVC products. Refer to the section on PVC Stewardship for more detail about this commitment.
What happens when PVC products burn in building fires?
PVC has low flammability and rate of heat release due to its low organic/high chlorine content. Pure PVC will self-extinguish once the external heat or flame source is removed. Rigid PVC materials such as those used for pipe, vertical blinds and siding, are recognised for their excellent fire retardant properties. The fire properties of flexible PVC products depend on the quantity and composition of plasticiser added. Refer to the section on Fire Safety for more information.
Is PVC a danger to people in building fires?
The toxicity of building fire emissions from PVC is neither better nor worse than for many other common materials. The low flammability of many PVC products makes them an asset in a fire situation. When it does burn, PVC tends to produce heavy smoke. However, the most important products in any fire are heat and carbon monoxide. These are produced by all organic materials when they burn. Hydrogen chloride is produced when chlorine-containing materials, including PVC are burnt. It is a common irritant gas, and has a very pungent odour so is quickly detected. At the levels encountered in building fires, hydrogen chloride remains an irritant and is not lethal. To our knowledge, no building fire fatality has ever been attributed to PVC by building fire authorities. Refer to the section on Fire Safety for more information.
Do PVC products cause a waste problem?
Around 85% of PVC is used for long-life products which last for between 15 and 100 years. These are building materials such as window frames, water distribution and drainage pipes and electrical cable insulation and conduit. About 10% of products are used for between two and 15 years such as computer housing, car parts and furniture. Less than 5% is used for short-lived applications such as packaging and things that can only be used once like medical products. On the whole, PVC is not designed to be wasted and does not generate high waste volumes.
Does PVC pollute soil and groundwater when disposed of in landfills?
Studies examining whether PVC pollutes groundwater and soil in landfill show that PVC does not degrade in landfill and is not expected to add to the toxicity of leachate. Minute quantities of metal stabilisers may leach from PVC but the quantities are considered an insignificant contribution to heavy metal concentrations in landfill. Although vinyl chloride gas may be present in landfill, it is formed from the degradation of chlorinated hydrocarbons not from PVC.
Does the incineration of PVC cause the emission of large amounts of dioxins?
It has been demonstrated that PVC in the waste stream of properly operated incinerators has a negligible effect on the amount of dioxins emitted. Dioxin emissions are primarily the result of combustion temperature and efficiency of operation, both of which can be controlled with the use of modern incineration technology. In Australia, municipal waste incineration and halogen chemical manufacture contribute less than 1% to the total dioxin emissions to air. Read more in PVC and Dioxins.
Does PVC material contaminate the recycling of other plastics? Is PVC difficult to recycle?
The successful recycling of any polymer requires an homogenous and clean supply of the material, free from contamination by different types of polymer. This is true in the recycling of PVC and any other major plastic. PVC is as recyclable as any other plastic.
Over its life cycle, how does PVC compare to other materials? Can it be readily substituted for more environmentally benign materials?
Several life cycle, or cradle-to-grave studies have been completed for PVC in some of its major applications (see the section on Life Cycle Assessments). These indicate that the environmental performance of PVC in its major applications is as good, or better than alternative products. In some of its applications, there are few or no readily available alternative materials offering the same or improved beneficial properties. PVC is one of the most thoroughly tested of all materials. Where alternatives do exist, they may not have been subjected to the same degree of rigorous assessment.
How should decisions to select any material be made?
The PVC industry in Australia strongly supports the selection of all materials based on their merits in terms of performance, cost and environmental impact. Expert scientific opinion, where available, should form the basis for environmental comparisons. This principle of selection on merit is the cornerstone for the fair treatment of all materials and delivers benefits to industry and customers alike.