PHIL

line

THE LIFE CYCLE OF PVC AND ALTERNATIVES COMPARED

line

FAIRY-TALE

The making of PVC guttles energy.

Source: 'Nature and Environment' (Dutch), November 1988.

There are currently, substitutes available for many PVC applications which are environmentally superior, with satisfactory performance standards.

Source: 'PVC, an environmental poison', Greenpeace Australia, January 1996.

line

FACTS AND FIGURES

The story of the environmental 'better' alternatives.

How can we decide that a certain material is 'better' or 'worse' for the environment? The only way is to sample all scientific evidence on the impact of raw material and energy use, air- and waterpollution, maintenance, recycling, incineration and deposit for any material, used for a certain purpose.
The manufacturing, the use and the deposit of every material will have an impact on the environment. Nothing is 100% 'environmentally friendly'. What matters, is if the pollution is acceptable, that means not higher than can be managed by man and nature at an acceptable risk. Of course, there is still discussion of what is acceptable. For Greenpeace, no chlorine use is acceptable, even if that pollutes less than a lot of alternatives. We do think that a sound scientific approach of risk and emissions is better for our health and the future of our planet...

Parts of this page



line

Everybody cheats a little...

The industry, the government, the environmental groups: everybody has some interest to hide some facts at one side, or to exxagerate the same facts at the other side.
If you look e.g. to one of the first Life Cycle Analyses (LCA's) made by the Swiss Government on different materials, one can see that the Government protects the own Swiss aluminium industry, by accounting the pollution of electricity production only to Swiss (mainly) water power, while the other materials are accounted for a European mix electricity (fossil fuels, nuclear- and waterpower).
Also, when industry orders for an LCA, comparing their materials against other manufacturers' ones, you should be aware that they want the scientists to emphasise on the good sides of their products and on the bad sides of the competitors' one.
On the other hand, a peer review of an LCA on PVC-, PET- and glass bottles for mineral water in Belgium used figures for dioxin emissions of PVC-plants suggested by... Greenpeace, which were 10,000 times higher than the real values found by universities and investigators of the Government. That is no wonder, if you know that the not so independent reviewers were acting against the use of PVC since many years...

There are still other drawbacks on LCA's. An LCA is a investigation of a certain moment and can be outdated rapidely, because of investments in the factories. So are e.g. the emission of dioxins and other chlorinated compounds from PVC factories to water reduced by a hundredfold in the past ten years, just by introducing (biological) waste water treatments. The same is true for air emissions.
Another problem can be that the differences in emissions between factories, making the same products, can differ widely, where the difference can be much wider than between factories making different products. In that case, factories which have invested a lot in reducing emissions are punished, because other ones didn't do that. In fact, average emissions for one type of product should be accompanied with lowest and highest measured values and with the possible lows when the Best Available Technology (BAT) should have been used.


Raw material and energy use of PVC and alternatives

Let us look at an overview of the energy use of different materials, presented by an environmental group (acting against the use of PVC!), based on figures from a scientific institute in The Netherlands. The figures for the use of crude oil - as raw material - were calculated by myself. If you have better ones, don't hesitate to send them to me...

Energy and crude oil use for different materials.
All figures as GJ/ton for energy use and ton/ton for crude oil.

Energy and crude oil use
for different materials
Material energy
use
crude oil
use
PVC 53 0.63
LD/HDPE 70 1.10
PP 73 1.17
PS 80 1.26
PET 84 1.65
PC 107 1.68
Steel 30 0.00
Aluminium 200 0.00
Source: Milieuvriendelijk verpakken in de toekomst
(Dutch: Environmentally friendly packaging in the future)
Stichting Milieudefensie (Nl), 1991.

As you can see, the energy and crude oil use of PVC is the lowest of all plastics. Not bad for an energy guttler, isn't it?
Steel and aluminium don't use crude oil as raw material, but steel needs coal and aluminium uses also coal and lots of electrical energy. The amount of crude oil should not be overemphasised, all plastics in the world do use only 4% of all crude oil, 94% is directly used for energy, the rest for other purposes. So, if crude oil should only be used for making plastics, it would be an abundant material...

It is quite normal that the energy and crude oil use of PVC is the lowest, because 57% of PVC comes from salt, an extremely abundant material on earth. Of course you need energy to split salt into chlorine and sodiumhydroxyde, but in many cases this is done by combined heat/energy power plants with very high yield on energy and you have two valuable products for the same energy. Sometimes you even have three products: chlorine is first used to make another product, like polycarbonate (PC) or polyurethane (PU), before it is used to make DCE/VCM/PVC. That means that in such cases the energy use of PVC and of the other products is even lower.

The energy use per ton is not the only point in total energy use during a lifetime: the amount of material, needed for a certain application, the type of use and the length of a usefull life is important too. Although aluminium needs much more energy for production, it saves much more energy when used for e.g. making car motors, because of the lighter weight. That means that you need less aluminium in weight to make the same motor and lighter cars, which gives less petrol consumption, thus energy (and pollution) savings during lifetime.


PVC and alternatives in production

When we look at the air- and waterpollution, we need some normation to make different kinds of pollution comparable. In almost all LCA's they use the method of 'critical volumes', that is the volume of air or water you need to dilute the measured amount from the emission of a certain polluter to below the legal limits in force. All critical volumes for all individual emissions are then added together to give the total critical volume of a product. In this way, the total air- and waterpollution of different emissions and products can be compared. In fact, the produced figures count for the amount and for the toxicity of the emission: more or more toxic polluters need more air or water to be diluted until under the normation, that gives a higher critical volume.
There are some drawbacks on this method: legal limits can differ very much from country to country, based on differences in assumed (eco)toxicologic properties. Sometimes limits are based on political grounds and not on toxicological grounds. But if properly used, this method gives a rough idea, where the problems are.
From the same source as for energy use we give you the figures for critical volumes to air and water by production of one kg of a material:

Critical volumes for the production of different materials.
All figures in m3 air/kg and dm3 water/kg.

Critical volumes for the
production of different materials.
Material c.v. air c.v. water
PVC 700 3,000
LDPE 265 1,650
PP/HDPE 325 3,685
PS 255 6,335
PET 180 8,000
PC 180 5,050
Steel 3,400 4,600
Aluminium 9,320 27,700
Source: Milieuvriendelijk verpakken in de toekomst
(Dutch: Environmentally friendly packaging in the future)
Stichting Milieudefensie (Nl), 1991.

These figures are in fact not complete and outdated.
Not complete, because the energy emissions were not included. Why, that was not clear, until we saw the difference: electrical power for salt-chlorine-PVC plants is mainly produced by the use of natural gas, while most refinaries use their own waste. This gives for the biggest refinary in The Netherlands already 1,200 tonnes of soot per year for a work up of 21 million tonnes of crude oil. As you know the difference in carcinogenity (and persistence!) between soot and the most important polluters from a PVC factory: VCM and DCE (see Chlorine and cancer), taking into account the energy production would give a lot more air pollution for the 100% oil based products!
Also outdated, because the DCE-VCM-PVC factories in The Netherlands since 1991 have installed a lot of new equipment to reduce the air emissions of DCE with a tenfold and of VCM with a fivefold, while not much changed at the biggest refinary...
Of course, here too it is important, how much material you need for a certain application and for some applications more important (e.g. aluminium and plastics in cars), how much - or less - pollution is coming from the use of these products.
Al together, the figures for PVC are not so bad for an environmental poison, isn't it?


PVC and alternatives when in use

PVC is a very versatile material, it is used in tenthousands of applications, so it is nearly impossible to give a complete comparison for all these applications.
Rigid PVC is used as building material in window frames, waste water pipes, etc..., etc... It doesn't rust nor rot and it has a very long lifespan. PVC drinking water supplies were tested after 37 years underground: No difference was found, compared with new pipes. So, for this application it will have a lifetime of more than a hundred years.
Soft PVC sheet can be applicated to strenghten the dikes in The Netherlands at a much lower price, at much higher speed and with a four times longer lifespan - up to 200 years - than steel reinforcements. Electrical cables, isolated with PVC can withstand sunlight and all outside weather conditions for tens of years, while the alternatives had to be renewed after eight years, because of dangerous short circuits in rain, caused by cracked polymers. So we can go on for many lines...

Of course, all good properties can turn into bad, if that is on behalf of the environment. We have seen no big problems for PVC when produced, there are even less when in use. PVC needs practically no maintenance. This was one of the reasons for the Gothenburg (Sweden) hospitals to choose for vinyl instead of linoleum floorings. Although the production of linoleum uses near only renewable raw materials (linseed oil), it is less favorable in use: before the application of vinyl they had to use 6 tons of cleaning agents per year, after that, 0.5 tons and they will reduce it to near zero.
The same is thrue for wooden window frames: Wood is a 100% renewable raw material, but, besides production emissions (2/3 of the wood ends as production waste, which is mainly burned!), wooden window frames have to be painted, or treated. This makes the use of wood and PVC for window frames equally good (or bad) for the environment.

PVC was accused to have many negative aspects for health and environment. In all cases these accusations turned out to be false.
PVC softeners, like phtalates, are linked to cancer and oestrogenic properties. That may be the case, if you give massive doses to rats - up to an equivalent of 500 g/day for an adult human - but after hundreds of tests, not for primates (apes and humans), because differences in metabolism. PVC, including phtalates, is the only thoroughly tested plastic which is permitted for bloodbags. In fact, you ingest near 0.1 g of phtalates per year by using PVC, the toxic equivalent of drinking 0.01 g of alkohol... per year.
PVC was accused to give remaining VCM in food and water, which can cause cancer, it turned out that water from PVC-bottles gives (an insignificant) 1.9% less cancer, compared with water from glass bottles in a mega-experiment.
PVC was accused to be the origin of sudden childrens dead, it turned out to be the contrary: one of the many possible causes is the use of matrasses which catch a lot of dust. PVC and other plastic layers prevent that.
PVC was accused to give irritations and allergic reactions, it turned out to be the contrary: a lot of hospitals, especially build for allergy patients are using PVC as building material, because a lot of natural materials like certain types of wood and not well treated natural rubber (latex) can give severe allergic reactions.
So we can go on... It is easy to find new allegations every day, so you can accuse anything to be an 'environmental poison', because it takes months, even years to prove that the allegation was false. The general public in the meantime will remember only the allegation which was widespread in newspapers and other media. The positive results, months or years later, are in general not even mentioned, or somewere on the twentieth page...

line

THE ALTERNATIVES

All alternatives for PVC, give pollution during production, transport, recycling and/or incineration. In many cases, they use more energy and more scarce raw materials than PVC and in many cases they give more important air and water emissions than the production, transport, use, recycling, incineration and accidental fires of PVC.


CONCLUSION

There is no reason to threat the environmental impact from PVC in its whole lifecycle different from the alternatives. And there are no reasons at all to ask for a ban on PVC, only some minor for a change-over to alternatives. But there are at least as much reasons for a change-over from the alternatives to PVC.

line

You are at level two of the Chlorophiles pages

Created: March 16, 1996.
Last update: May 2, 1998.

Welcome page

To the Home Page of the Chlorophiles

Up: PVC and alternatives

Right: Complete Life Cycle Analyses of PVC and alternatives in applications

For any comment on this page, especially on the Life Cycle of materials or on other Chlorophiles pages:

Mail to: Chlorophiles@ping.be