However, even without taking into account environmental impacts of major pollutants, the report finds PVC to be the worst of the options it considered for windows and floors. This is because timber and linoleum use less energy, contribute less to global warming gases, use fewer non-renewable resources and generate less waste. In fact the LCA depends almost entirely on energy consumption, as nearly all of the six impact assessment categories (Greenhouse effect, air acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, photochemical oxidant formation, water eutrophication and non-renewable resource depletion) follow from this.
Using the same criteria the other two applications the report looks at, packaging collation trays and aluminium rainwater pipes, came out slightly worse than PVC, but questions have to be asked about the choice of materials on which the comparison was based. They were chosen to represent packaging and piping, both significant uses of PVC, but neither polystyrene nor aluminium are common alternatives for packaging or pipes, except in the specific applications chosen. In the UK, polyethylene is the most common material for packaging and much more common than aluminium for piping applications, but it has not been included in the study. Also excluded are polypropylene and PET, both much more significant alternatives than polystyrene and aluminium. It means the only plastic alternative considered is polystyrene, a material well known for its poor environmental record and one that has never been suggested by Greenpeace as an alternative to PVC, because it too involves the use of hazardous raw materials.
Greenpeace toxics campaigner Mark Strutt said,
"Considering the fact that this report totally ignores the central environmental argument against PVC - the toxic pollutants produced during its life cycle - it comes out very badly. Unfortunately because toxicity of pollutants has not been considered, and because all the main plastic alternatives to PVC have been ignored, the report adds little of use to policy makers trying to find ways of reducing the environmental impacts of PVC. In fact it does more to confuse the issue."
The report's authors were unable to include environmental or human health impacts because they felt they were unable to quantify these impacts. The report therefore does much more to highlight the limits of current life cycle analysis techniques than it does to help policy makers deal with PVC. As the Department of Environment Transport and the Regions who commissioned the study say "there are concerns over the possible environmental impacts of PVC, particularly toxic emissions from manufacture and disposal; production of toxic by-products in accidental fires; and the use of additives, such as phthalates and heavy metals". (1)
In fact the use of hazardous raw materials and the creation of hazardous by products is the central, overriding issue, surrounding the use of PVC and the reason Greenpeace and other groups are calling for PVC to be substituted with other materials. Environmental impacts from toxic materials including dioxin, phthalates, lead, and cadmium, are also the central problems that have resulted in the EU policy discussion. The exclusion of these issues from consideration results in an enormous distortion of the results towards PVC. In spite of this PVC is considered the worst material for floors and window frames.
The report does attempt to compensate for the exclusion of impacts from toxic pollution by including a chapter on what it calls "Macro Assessment of Risks". Here it considers "principal health risks" or the major occupational and transport hazards arising from production of the four materials. It finds that PVC and polystyrene exhibit the greatest risks. PVC poses "considerable" hazards due to "chlorine toxicity and fire and explosion hazards represented by ethylene, EDC and VCM production". The report also finds that although risks are low for all materials during use, "PVC products will present a higher level of risk due to issues such as toxic combustion products (e.g. hydrogen chloride) and potential decomposition releases (e.g. of some phthalates for which there has been claims of a possible link to endocrine disruption)."
It should also be noted that the LCA assumed all products would be landfilled at the end of their lives (apart from aluminium), because in the UK nearly all commercial waste is currently landfilled - many toxic releases from PVC, including dioxins, result from incineration of household waste. The report also notes that if aluminium pipe recycling were increased to 100%, they would perform better than PVC (a recycling rate of 80% is assumed).
Mark Strutt added
"It is as clear as day that PVC should be phased out and replaced with non chlorinated materials - timber, linoleum, polyethylene, PET, polypropylene and others". "This report confirms that for window frames and floors".
Notes for Editor's:
(1) DETR Press Release 13/03/01
Greenpeace press office on 020 7865 8255.