I can’t imagine anyone in the building sector not being aware of the ruckus that has surrounded PVC in Australia and globally since the mid-1990s.

At a recent New York symposium, I was astounded to hear the “Godfather” of the anti-PVC movement, Dr Michael Braungart of Cradle to Cradle and MBDC fame, give his qualified blessing to the need for PVC products in the market today.

The anti-PVC movement hit Australia with the Olympics Bid process, and after Sydney’s win I found myself deep inside the Ecologically Sustainable Development (or ESD as sustainability was then called) consulting trenches trying to find PVC alternatives for the 10 Games venues I was engaged on, including the Mirvac and Lend Lease joint venture for the Olympic Village and what is now known as Newington Commercial and Industrial precinct.

Greenpeace Australia, at the prompting of Greenpeace International, had issued a PVC manifesto and guidelines for the Sydney Olympic Games around 1995. As I learnt in New York, Michael Braungart was a director of Greenpeace and the lead researcher and protagonist behind the campaign to stop PVC which influenced Greenpeace Australia to act.

In the lead up to the 2000 Games in Sydney, as a direct result of the Greenpeace action, eliminating and finding PVC alternatives wherever possible was written into various Olympic tenders and contracts and resulted in a long-running agenda to clean up or eliminate PVC. The agenda was picked up by the US Green Building Council (USGBC) and ultimately by the newly formed GBC of Australia’s (GBCA) Green Star rating tools’  PVC Minimisation credits.

There is no doubt that internationally, many of the PVC products in the market and available to Australia at that time did contain heavy metal stabilisers, endocrine disrupting phthalate plasticisers such as DEHP, mercury or asbestos based chlorine manufacture. Nor is there any doubt that when chlorinated plastics are burnt, dioxin is emitted or that vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) pollution still occurs.

Indeed, a recent media release by the Healthy Buildings Network in the US claimed its review of US Environmental Protection Agency Toxic Release Inventory data for US PVC plants revealed that dioxin creation is significantly higher than the US Vinyl Institute claims.. The release said that in 2013, total on and off-site releases of dioxin from PVC manufacturing were more than 1,000 per cent higher than the amounts claimed by the Vinyl Institute.

Also, it won’t be until 2017 that all mercury production of chlorine is due to cease in the EU, and under the 2013 UNEP Minimata Convention on Mercury, 128 countries have signed to eliminate mercury except significant PVC producers like the US, Thailand and Taiwan. These ongoing issues do need to be taken into account in light of impending changes to the Australian industry.

Consequently, there is no argument at a global level, PVC generally did and in some cases still does need cleaning up. However, the way in which the campaign was (and in the US is still being) run, does leave something to be desired.

What was left out of this equation was the reality that Australian PVCs at the time were already the best available technology (BAT) and didn’t contain many of the nasty traits that the USBC and Greenpeace were promoting as universal. ICI Australia’s historic and illegal vinyl chloride monomer contamination of the Botany Aquifer aside, the concerns did not apply to Australian manufactured PVC that was already using heavy metal free stabilisers and already being sourced with mercury-free chlorine and using DINP, known then as a non endocrine disrupting plasticiser. Also, Australia had (and has) very few garbage incinerators, so PVC is unlikely to be burnt and dioxin emitted to air here.

Don’t get me wrong here; I am not an apologist or promoter for the PVC industry. In fact, my view on the issue has always been solely science-based. But as an LCA researcher, one thing that always puzzled me was: why was PVC singled out? Many other plastics and polymers come with equally negative (or worse) whole-of-life (WOL) impacts.

Other polymers compared to PVC have much higher embodied energy-related toxic emissions but also other issues, such as polyurethane with its toxic cyanide based TDI and MDI isocyanate pre-polymers, epoxies with their and endocrine disrupting BPA, polycarbonates that need sarin gas as a precursor, polystyrene and SBR synthetic rubber with their carcinogenic styrene monomers and SBR with its toxic 4-phenylcyclohexene and 4-vinylcyclohexene emissions. Given all this, is PVC so bad?

Life cycle analysis (LCA) that considers WOL emissions of dioxin, mercury and other heavy metal emissions due to the additional embodied energy of these other plastics, shows that the extra coal that is burnt far outweighs the much lower embodied energy consumption (and carbon dioxide emissions) of PVC manufacture. Dioxin, mercury and many other heavy metals and toxins are also emitted by coal fired power stations. Therefore, more energy intensive plastics have higher electricity related emissions largely ignored by protagonists of PVC, especially when BAT PVC is manufactured substantially with renewable energy, as at least one source I am aware of is.

Furthermore, as a result of the use by USGBC of a PVC LCA report based on these old, dirty formulations and the lobbying of other NGOs in the USA, Australian Vinyls fought a more than 15-year battle to get its products recognised as ‘clean’ vinyl.

In 2010, Global GreenTag launched with a world-first standard that required PVC to be mercury-free, use non-endocrine disrupting plasticisers, and require full on-site audit of LCA data and environmental licences and emissions to ensure only BAT products were certified.

Since then, numerous BAT PVC products have been certified, mostly at Silver or Gold level, and can easily be compared to other flooring types with both similar, but also worse, eco-point scores and ratings.

Then the collaboration between the Vinyl Council of Australia (VCA) and GBCA recognised BAT under the Best Practice PVC Standard (BPPVC) Guidelines adopted in 2011. Together, these certifications demonstrate the ease with which today specifiers can determine which products are BAT and even from within this group, which are more sustainable than others from their LCARate rating of Bronze, Silver, Gold (PVC and any other product with toxics in any stage of the product cannot be certified to Platinum level).

The latest development in the PVC industry was at the New York symposium in November. I witnessed Michael Braungart give his qualified blessing to PVC. While he said he “still believed chlorinated (and all halogenated) plastics needed to be eliminated over time” (a statement with which I agree), he went on to say “PVC is currently needed as chlorine sink, as transitional material to capture the recyclate stream and make sure existing waste PVC is not incinerated or placed in landfills to leach.”

This is a watershed statement – a potential game-changer for the industry, especially provided it is able to ensure that a majority of PVC products encapsulate post-consumer PVC recyclate content in ways that ensure that the content of the recyclate is benign in the finished product.

The VCA’s Product Stewardship Program is being used by companies like Armstrong, Polyflor, Karndean, Signature Flooring and many others to monitor and report the industry’s progress toward a broad scope of initiatives. While progress on recycling could be more rapid, some manufacturers’ own recycling efforts such as Interface’s ReEntry, and Tarkett’s ReUse programs are evidence of the positive changes in the industry.

However, similar programs do not exist for epoxies and programs for polyurethane or polycarbonate, SBR and polystyrene are limited. Indeed, epoxies and polyurethanes are not recyclable back into their original polymers at all, underscoring again the inequity of singling out PVC as the scapegoat. It’s been a long road, but PVC is now at least being treated on an even footing with other polymers and the road to true sustainability is a long one for them all.

This leads us then to ask what is the fundamental issue at stake here? What was driving Greenpeace, USGBC, GBCA and others on the PVC issue?

The answer is protecting natural systems and people, and who can argue with that? Hence, it raises questions as to whether ‘is PVC bad?’ even the right question. The short answer is no, it’s not the right question. The only question we should be answering is, ‘is this product better than that product’ for planetary and human health, because it is only at the product level that we get a valid answer. Only at the product level can we answer questions like what sort of maintenance or cleaning or replacement schedule is required or end of life reuse/recycling options are available.

We need to stop genericising ‘materials’ and start putting individual products under the microscope, making our product selections based on detailed knowledge of the WOL impacts of each range and each brand as they compare to one another.

In our experience of doing just that and hundreds of LCAs for products to be certified, sometimes the results are counter-intuitive. What we think is more ‘sustainable’ is not always so. One new generation BAT PVC product manufactured with renewable energy, recycled content and bio-plasticiser is better than at least one iconic eco-product, a bio-based product coated in polyurethane and steeped in agricultural diesel and fertiliser consumption.

We need to be specifying products using such detailed LCA, not dismissing whole categories of materials.

As a footnote, I was informed recently that the only local manufacturer of PVC, Australian Vinyls will shut its doors early in 2016, because it could not obtain a guaranteed five-year contract due to the worldwide shortage of VCM given the explosion in use worldwide.

Another leading technology Australian industry bites the dust.