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PVC is a difficult subject because the criticisms have come from several distinct directions

  • those who find the chemistry of producing PVC dangerous. GreenPeace has campaigned long and hard on this issue for two reasons –
    • PVC is oil based and therefore dangerous for several reasons
      • it involves shipping oil around the world and this creates pollution and danger to the marine environment
      • drilling for oil is increasingly a risky business causing a great deal of pollution
      • the refining of oil is very energy intensive
      • other, more sustainable options are available
    • PVC is chlorine based (poly vinyl chloride) and therefore a fairly dangerous chemistry. GreenPeace have campaigned against almost all chlorine based manufacturing along with all oil production. See the US Healthy Building News web page on dioxin release associated with PVC manufacture.
  • PVC has extremely high embodied energy, along with most other plastics.
  • plastics generally can fall into disrepute because they don’t always function as well as expected. This in itself is complicated because plastics have suffered from several misapprehensions and have been victim to over-expectation and a cut-throat marketplace which is about cheapness rather than quality.
    • on the one hand plastics seem to be indestructible but on the other seem to be constantly being scrapped. Often the quality of design of elements such as rain water goods is lacking in terms of mechanical strength and this leads to physical damage (eg ladders against gutters).
    • plastics have been oversold compared with other materials, mainly on grounds of cheapness.
    • plastics have been cheap because of oil being free at source, and therefore seen as a ‘cheap option’, or a poor person’s option.
  • PVC has been very difficult, almost impossible to reuse or recycle until recently. However things are changing and breakthroughs have been made in this area with initiatives such as Recivinyl. For instance a company in Stalybridge (PVC Recycling Ltd) has developed technology which can turn PVC waste such as old window frames back into almost pure PVC feedstock suitable for extremely high quality re-use. This could lead to elements such as PVC windows becoming considerably more recyclable than timber ones. At present the claim is that PVC can be reused up to seven times before degrading too far. This is set to increase. However this all depends on the scale and quality of waste stream management which is still at an early stage.
  • PVC is usually very difficult to repair when damaged. The main problem is with windows where plastic sections get chipped and broken or the mechanical parts like hinges and locks get broken and the whole window needs to be replaced. However timber is little better in this respect, especially where more sophisticated timber windows incorporate complex mechanical metal parts.
  • plastics are relatively new and some of the components of plastics (in fact the very parts which make them plastic rather than brittle) have been implicated with particular types of pollution such as hormone disruption. These may be the chemicals which leech out into the surrounding environment. Research is hazy on this issue.
  • there is the ‘traditionalist’ lobby which hates anything new, especially in, say, a conservation area. Fair enough, you may say. That is exactly what conservation is about.
  • there is a huge British, snobby sort of attitude which sees plastic windows, gutters or, god forbid, clap boarding as being ‘trashy’ and associated with, say, working class housing.

On the positive side PVC, like most plastics can have firm advantages over many other materials

  • it can be extremely resilient and has the advantage of not degrading when wet
  • it can be mass produced to fine tolerances and complex sections
  • it has a self finish so it avoids the need for ecologically damaging paint and coatings

Interestingly the BRE Green guide gives an A rating to PVC

Much in the end comes down to whether the recycling of PVC becomes a sensible reality and whether design is aimed at the quality end of the market.

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