Beautiful Signs for a Better Planet

Vinyl: An Honest Conversation

What is Vinyl? 

Vinyl refers to plastics based on polyvinyl-chloride, also referred to as PVC. Vinyl is a popular polymer plastic that can be found almost anywhere you look, from children’s toys to IV lines. Usually, PVC refers to the stiff and strong uses such as PVC pipes. Vinyl characterizes the floppy vinyl records, flexible tubes, and softer applications.  For over fifty years, this cheap, flexible, and durable material has found its way into many areas of our life.

Polyvinyl chloride is the world’s third-most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer after low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Each year, about 40 million tons of PVC are produced. Around 70% of vinyl and PVC, is used for construction purposes.⁴

Vinyl record albums are one of the first things that come to mind when people hear the word vinyl. And your assumption is correct—those records are made of vinyl! However, the extent to which we rely on vinyl in our daily lives extends far beyond music and house siding. And, unfortunately, the beauty of this plastic is only skin-deep. 

Below its shiny surface, the hidden costs of vinyl—air pollution, cancer, reduction of natural resources & consumption of fossil fuels—add up.

Artsy image of a man holding a vinyl record in front of a mural of two hands;An honest conversation about vinyl considers alternatives
An honest conversation about vinyl considers alternatives for the health of the planet

The word “polymer” comes from the Greek word polumeros, which means “having many parts.” Monomers (“mono” meaning “one”) are the building blocks of polymers. When many monomer molecules link together at the atomic level, the result is a long polymer chain.

Combining polymer chains produces the plastics we see all around us. LDPE, HDPE, and PVC are examples of manmade polymers. Additionally, natural fibers such as wool, cotton, and silk are all formed of polymers. Cellulose, the material that makes up the cell walls of plants, is another natural polymer.⁹

The most common application of vinyl in the U.S., in building and construction, accounts for around 70 percent of total demand.²⁸ Forty to forty-two percent of PVC is used in PVC pipes and pipe connectors alone for purposes like water or waste transportation. ⁵ Some other readily recognizable applications of vinyl in building and construction are siding, flooring, and fencing. Product labels and protective coatings on electronic wires are other typical uses of vinyl.

Vinyl is also a key part of many types of signage.  Outdoor banners are most commonly made of reinforced vinyl; vehicle and window graphics are made from cut vinyl films; and translucent vinyl is used on illuminated signs.  In fact, hand-painted signs began being replaced with vinyl in the early 1980s. The modern sign industry would not exist without vinyl.

The Background of Vinyl

What is the history of vinyl?

The history of vinyl began in the nineteenth century. Today’s environmental activism, technological advances, and discerning consumers keep the story of vinyl a page-turner.

1853 & 1872: PVC resin was discovered accidentally on two separate occasions: first by French chemist and physicist Henri Victor Regnault in 1853 and then 1872 by German chemist Eugen Baumann. The surprise PVC appeared as a white powder.⁵

1913: German citizen Friedrich Heinrich August Klatte received the first patent for PVC. While working at BFGoodrich™ in the early twentieth century, American chemist Waldo Semon found a way to make the brittle PVC manageable with plasticizers, which led to BFGoodrich™ commercializing the polymer and the starting its use in numerous applications.³

1975: Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. v. Occupational Safety Health Administration suit lowered exposure limits for PVC workers from 500ppm to 1ppm over eight hours.²⁵ Evidence for the harmfulness of vinyl chloride is substantial, including findings of cancerous tumors in rats exposed to just 50ppm; and the recent deaths of thirteen vinyl chloride workers, three from the same manufacturing plant, from hepatic angiosarcoma (HAS), an exceedingly rare form of liver cancer.⁷

1976: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added vinyl chloride to the list of hazardous air pollutants (40 FR 59477) and proposed national emission standards on all aspects of polyvinyl chloride manufacturing. These regulations were proposed to further “the protection of public health by minimizing the health risks to the people living in the vicinity of these plants and to any additional people who are exposed as a result of new construction.”¹⁶

1982: The Vinyl Institute was founded with the mission of “Representing the leading manufacturers of vinyl, vinyl chloride monomer, and vinyl additives and modifiers. The Vinyl Institute serves as the voice for the vinyl industry, engaging industry stakeholders in shaping the future of the vinyl industry.” The Vinyl Institute promotes a positive image of PVC to ensure the economic survival of the industry at whatever cost.²⁹

2001: Twenty-eight executives from Italy were accused of “manslaughter with foresight” of workers at the Porto Marghera vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) complex from 1965-1985. The executives were also accused of polluting the Venice Lagoon. All were acquitted but agreed to pay $257 million towards the cost of cleaning the lagoon’s water and soil.¹²

2018: +Vantage Vinyl™ was implemented by the Vinyl Institute to investigate and implement the sustainability practices of the industry, focusing on landfill diversions, emissions, and health and safety. Their end-of-year report does not address the exposure risks of resin workers or the amount of PVC that goes to landfills.¹⁷

2019: U.S. Green Building Council’s newest LEED® v4 placed restrictions on vinyl products to receive credit; the Vinyl Institute threatened the USGBC that these new rules, “can actually lead architects and designers to make bad decisions in order to secure credits so they can market their buildings.”²²

How is vinyl made today?

Vinyl (aka PVC) is composed of two simple building blocks: ethylene and petroleum.²⁸ Ethylene is obtained from fossil fuels such as natural gas or petroleum, and the element chlorine is derived from common seawater or brackish water. Although the Vinyl Institute claims that PVC is a sustainable material, the fact that fossil fuels are undoubtedly non-renewable materials, and using them releases carbon, raises eyebrows. The most common PVC manufacturing process is described below.¹⁹

Vinyl and PVC in the Environment Chemistry

Basically, VCM is formed from salt and fossil fuels. The chemical composition of VCM is represented by C2H3Cl.

To produce VCM, ethylene is first extracted from its fossil fuel feedstock in a process called thermal cracking. Liquid petroleum is put under heat and pressure, causing the chemicals in petroleum to take on different molecular weights. This change allows ethylene to be recognized and separated from the rest of the petroleum components.

To separate chlorine from salt water, an electric charge is passed through the liquid. This step introduces more negatively charged electrons into the mixture, allowing the chlorine to break its bonds with the salt water and be extracted. 

Next, the ethylene and chlorine are combined to form a compound called ethylene dichloride (EDC). This compound then undergoes a heating process called “thermal cracking” to 200°C to 315°C (392°F and 599°F). The heat causes EDC to undergo a chemical change and become vinyl chloride monomer gas (VCM). VCM, colorless and sweet-smelling, is also classified as a Group 1: carcinogenic to humans, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an offshoot of the World Health Organization.⁷ Adverse health impacts are discussed later in this article. 

Next, a chemical catalyst called a peroxide inhibitor is introduced into VCM. This particular newcomer molecule is like the guy who livens up your party with a conga line. The catalyst first links up with one VCM molecule. When the two connect, another point of connection opens up on the VCM molecule, causing another VCM molecule to attach.

Thus, a chain reaction begins where hundreds or thousands of VCM molecules are linked behind the catalyst “conga line leader” and a comparatively very large molecule is produced.

Vinyl and PVC in the Environment Chemistry

This process is called polymerization—when many monomers (“singles)” link up into one long polymer chain. The most common industry method for this step, called suspension, fills the VCM tank with water to suspend the chemical particles. Throughout the VCM tank, there are many “conga line” catalysts and many chains forming.

It should be noted that the regulations for proper cleaning or disposal of the water used for suspending VCM and other man-made chemicals vary widely and are often set by industry groups.

However, the polymerization party cannot last forever: sooner or later, two lines will meet up or another introduced molecule, like the neighbor who tells the party to “quiet down!” will complete the chain and leave no point of connection. All of the completed links become a fine, chemically stable powder. The powder is dried or treated, depending on the polymerization method used. 

This resulting powder, or resin, is called polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or simply “vinyl.” Depending on the desired attributes of the final product, the resin can be mixed with a variety of plasticizers, stabilizers, and modifiers. Desired properties such as durability, flexibility, color, texture, UV resistance, and more can be achieved. Lastly, the final mixture is extruded or molded into the desired shape. 

Although this is the most common method in the vinyl industry, there exist several other more dangerous alternatives to this maneuvering of chemicals. Mercury, asbestos, and fluorinated substances (PFAS) are routinely utilized to produce PVC.²³ Unfortunately, leakage into the environment and harm to workers is all too common in PVC manufacturing and disposal.

The Reality of PVC

While vinyl is stable during its operational life, the production and disposal of vinyl pose tremendous hazards to workers, consumers, and the planet. 

Human Impact

Although a cheap, sturdy, and flexible material, you may want to think twice about incorporating PVC into your home or business construction. Vinyl’s production, life, and disposal release dangerous chemicals that cause adverse health impacts in humans and nature. Vinyl chloride, dioxins, and heavy metals are a few of these toxic substances.

Vinyl Chloride

Almost all vinyl chloride gas (VCM) produced today is used in the production of PVC. Vinyl chloride gas has long been a blemish in the history of vinyl production. Among exposed workers worldwide, there were reports of nearly 200 cases of VCM-related rare liver cancer between 1974 and 2000. For many workers, VCM was dormant in their bodies for more than twenty years before becoming cancerous. Reports of these types of cancers spiked in the mid to late 1970s in workers who cleaned reactor vessels. These workers were believed to have suffered VCM exposure as high as 3000 ppm.⁷ 

Even though the vinyl industry complied with OSHA regulations in 1975 to reduce the allowable exposure of chloride gas to 1 part per million (ppm) over eight hours, or no more than 5ppm in 15 minutes, many voices of expertise and lived experience argue that no exposure to this gas is safe and should be allowed.8, 14, 18 Furthermore, there is no transparency around the disposal methods of waste VCM. No PVC manufacture or recycling programs were found listing information describing practices—safe or not—for treating VCM collected during their daily processes. 

Today, many epidemiology researchers claim that there are no safe exposure levels to this gas, and the current allowed exposure level is unsafe. Many other medical experts agree that OSHA regulations should not allow any workers to knowingly come into contact with this toxic substance and call for immediate reform from the vinyl industry.8, 14, 18

Unfortunately, these scientific claims are far from just theoretical. Investigations of workers today reveal biological discrepancies between those exposed to “safe” levels of chloride gas and those who have no exposure. Higher incidences of liver damage were found in workers who were exposed to higher allowable levels of vinyl chloride gas even when controlling for factors like age, weight, and other demographic variables.⁸ 

Dioxins

Dioxins are another toxic substance inseparable from vinyl’s cycle from cradle to grave. Dioxins, mainly by-products of industrial processes, can be emitted from natural processes such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires.⁶ Pound for pound, vinyl is by far the greatest producer of manmade dioxins.

Although the industry claims that dioxin release is not a major concern with vinyl, the truth is that their history of releasing vinyl into the atmosphere cannot be erased. PVC production today has set limits on dioxins released, but the historic leaching of dioxins has made everyone today come into contact with this toxic chemical.

For example, the increasing number of wildfires in California and other areas of the western USA has raised concerns about the ability of PVC water pipes to withstand high temperatures. A recent study confirmed these fears, finding that thermally degraded PVC released close to 100 compounds. The emissions testing identified four known IARC Group 1 human carcinogens (vinyl chloride, formaldehyde, 1,3-butadiene, and benzene), three Group 2A probable carcinogens, four Group 2B possible carcinogens.⁵  Clearly, these facts should make us all question the widespread use of PVC pipes and consider alternatives.

Because our dioxin baseline levels have been artificially elevated, any additional dioxin introduced to the system, no matter how small, now has a much greater capacity for harm. Thus, even if vinyl may not emit the great qualities of dioxins as it did in the past, the industry is still to blame for the environmental impacts of their and others’ dioxin emissions today.

Dioxins last for decades in the environment, accumulating over time in soil, water, and inhabitants. In humans and animals, dioxins are stored in the fatty tissue and thus last a long time in the body. Accumulation of dioxins up the natural food chain can cause animals who consume other organisms to die or have health issues from intaking dioxins. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 90 percent of human dioxin exposure is through food, mainly meat and dairy products, fish, and shellfish.⁶ 

Like mercury and other toxins in our food supply, dioxins can cause irreversible health problems. Short-term exposure to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions and altered liver function. Long-term exposure is linked to harm to the immune system, nervous system, endocrine system, and reproductive functions. Dioxin exposure is also linked to elevated levels of some cancers in animals. Infants and newborn children are especially vulnerable to dioxins.⁶ 

During the initial production of vinyl alone, many stages require the mixture to reach extreme temperatures and consequently release dioxins. For example, the step to convert ethylene and chloride into the manageable VCM gas requires thermal cracking. As the mixture is heated to 392°F— 599°F, dioxins are released in the factory surrounding areas.  Additionally, PVC can release dioxins at the end of its life when it is recycled or incorrectly processed as landfill trash. 

Additional Concerns: Heavy Metals and Plasticizers

Although the vinyl industry claims to have removed heavy toxic metals from production since 1976, there still exist many vinyl products in homes and landfills that contain these harmful metals. Should these dangerous older vinyl materials be present in a house fire or landfill burning (or even when they are recycled), all of these chemicals are released into the atmosphere and may contaminate the surrounding area for decades to come. 

Plasticizers are added during production to increase flexibility. However, they leach out of all plastic products over time, infiltrating nearby air, water, and soil. This is the reason many plastic products become brittle or lose favorable original qualities as they age or are exposed to the elements. 

The Pros and Cons of PVC Recycling

Vinyl and PVC in the Environment Resin Codes

Because PVC is not biodegradable, recycling seems like the responsible option for disposal. PVC is a thermoplastic (a polymer that can be melted and set repeatedly) like other common plastics such as LDPE and HDPE. PVC products can be recognized by the number three PVC resin code, usually found on the bottom of the product.

Information about the percentage of recycled PVC is not readily available. In recent years, the EPA has only offered comparative recycling reports on PPE and HDPE, suspiciously omitting PVC. If these statistics are not available to the public, what else could be hiding?

There are two main methods for PVC recycling: mechanical and feedstock. In mechanical recycling, waste PVC is ground into fine pieces. This powder is then melted and remolded into a new product. Feedstock, or chemical, recycling uses chemical processes like pyrolysis, hydrolysis, and heating to convert the PVC waste into its chemical components, which are then made into products.²⁰ 

Unlike metal or glass, however, PVC and other plastics can only be recycled a finite number of times. Each time plastic is melted down and processed again, its polymer chain is shortened, reducing its quality.²⁴ To make the recycled plastic usable, recycling plants must add virgin material—new plastic—into the mix.²⁶ Plastic recycled more than once or twice cannot be used to make products to hold food or consumable materials, and its declining structural integrity means it can only be used to make products that are bulkier and weaker.

PVC and other plastics are recyclable up to a maximum of ten times in the best circumstances.²⁷ Sadly, most do not even reach the recycling plant in their first life.  On average, even consumers with recycling bins only recycle 40 percent of recyclable materials, sending the rest to landfills.¹¹ An honest conversation must address the fact that all vinyl will someday end up in a landfill, burnt or otherwise released into our shared environment.

Even if vinyl is recycled, its heavy metals and high chlorine content complicate the recycling process. If PVC and vinyl products are not separated from other plastics in a recycling facility, these unexpected toxic by-products can be released during melting and may not be captured and handled safely by the recycling plant. Released dioxins, chlorine gas, and heavy metals pose serious health hazards for the workers in the facility and the surrounding community.

Separating recycled materials. Credit: Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

Additionally, processing plastics that are incompatible with each other adversely impacts the final recycled product. Just a small amount of PVC contaminant in a PET recycle stream reduces the quality of recycled PET. PVC responds to the heating process differently than PET plastics and emits chemicals that impact the bonding of recycled PET. On the flipside, PET in a PVC recycle stream will form solid lumps of crystalline PET, which significantly reduces the value of the recycled material.¹⁰

While it is a great thing that plastics can be recycled, it is unfortunate that PVC is often not separated from other plastics, or even recycled. Especially with new vinyl textures, shapes, and colors, recognizing what is vinyl and what is not can be difficult even for intentional consumers. The same characteristics that make vinyl a sought-after product—versatility, longevity, and ability to mimic other materials—also complicate recycling.

Hard, clear vinyl may be confused with glass; plastic packaging may be thought to be HDPE or LDPE; and vinyl products that bond to computers, cars, buildings, or other complex items may be unable to be separated or recognized at all. 

While vinyl’s versatility makes it highly sought after during its operational life, the lack of consensus and streamlined industry standards muddles the end of life for these products. Because the amount or type of plasticizers and other additives varies widely, it may not be cost-effective or safe to treat all vinyl and PVC products with the same recycling methods. For example, flexible PVC usually contains more plasticizer than rigid PVC; and even similar PVC products from different manufacturers or production years may have vastly different chemical compositions.

Thus, there is always an element of risk in how waste PVC will turn out after recycling. Due to this uncertainty, the final monetary value of recycled PVC is inconsistent and PVC recycling may not be a desirable long-term investment for many organizations. In many cases, it is more cost-effective to create new PVC and plastic products than to recycle them.²⁰

Specialized plants for PVC and vinyl recycling exist and are becoming more widespread; however, locating a nearby plant, coordinating pickup and disposal, and ensuring that your PVC is accepted at the recycling plant causes an unnecessary burden for individuals or organizations. Many people simply do not know or care about the distinct chemical makeup of their plastic products and may throw everything into the trash or recycling without making sure their products are compatible.

Next Steps

Saving our Priorities, Health and Resources

As we have discussed so far, vinyl may seem like a quick, cheap, and easy fix for many of our problems today. However, the hidden costs of this widespread material add up quickly.
Compared to other materials, including plastics, PVC has a large carbon footprint. According to WHO, a carbon footprint is a measure of the impact your activities have on the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced through the burning of fossil fuels.²¹ Carbon emissions accumulate in the atmosphere without enough natural processes to absorb these emissions.² Global experts call for a target limit of approximately 2 tones per person per year. Currently, the global average is 4 tons per person, with wide variation between countries.² In 2018, the national average for the United States of America was 16.65T, Saudi Arabia 18.48T, China 7.05T, United Kingdom 5.62T, and India 1.96T. If we do not make changes soon, it is only a matter of time before global warming and other irreversible environmental changes will occur.
There are two types of ways to lower our carbon footprint: Reducing the production of materials that use fossil fuels and increasing the usage of materials that are healthy for the planet. Doing both is ideal. Lowering our carbon footprint can start at the individual level, but the greatest change will come from influencing the decisions of larger corporations and organizations.
One material we should cut out of our lives is PVC.  Every time consumers purchase and use PVC, the vinyl industry receives more monetary incentive; As long as their products are in demand, the vinyl industry will continue to release more dangerous chemicals. PVC’s production and disposal release far more greenhouse gasses than other plastics like polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). One reason is that electricity is required for the electrolysis to produce chlorine, causing the need for more energy production and thus more CO2 emissions.¹⁵ Secondly, PVC releases CO2 when it is disposed of improperly through burning or accidental fires. Reducing the production of PVC is one step in reducing your carbon footprint.
On the other hand, increasing awareness and buying sustainable alternatives to products can help turn the tide on global warming. For example, increasing the demand for forest products, especially sustainably-managed forests, means there will be more forests. The benefit of this switch is twofold: More trees will sequester greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere; and less consumption and demand for fossil fuel products like PVC.

What are alternatives to vinyl and PVC?

Alternatives to vinyl and PVC range from classic materials like wood to more modern, sustainable polymers. Although vinyl and PVC appear to be a safe, predictable choice for many applications, modern technological breakthroughs and classic materials offer better performance, sustainability, and other desirable features. Below is a short list of alternatives to PVC to consider. 

Alternatives to Vinyl Siding

Wood: You can’t beat the beauty of natural wood! This readily-available material can last for decades with the right paint or finishing treatment. Responsibly-sourced wood and recyclable finishes ensure minimal environmental impact.¹

Metal: Long-lasting and low-maintenance, steel or aluminum siding is another desirable choice. Metal siding is the closest in cost to vinyl. Steel and aluminum are often made of recycled materials and both can be recycled infinitely without degrading.

Stucco: Although this option requires a bit of planning and maintenance, stucco provides a sustainable alternative to vinyl and an iconic siding experience like no other. Stucco siding is a great option for homes in warmer and drier climates like the Southwest.

Adobe: Closely related to stucco, adobe siding dries in the sun, uses only natural materials, and is easily disposed of. Sand, clay, straw or grass, and a moisture source form adobe. This highly sustainable material comes in brick form or can be applied directly to the building for a smooth finish. Possible customization options include oil finishes, paint, lime washes, or spray-on colorants. 

Stone: This highly durable, attractive material comes in two forms: natural stone or stone veneer, an outer layer of stone covering a synthetic membrane. These can last for over a century outside of your home. Engineered stone can last from 20 to 75 years.

Brick: Extremely durable and low-maintenance, this material is available in traditional “bricks” or a thinner brick veneer. Using recycled brick eliminates the energy used to fire the brick in kilns as eliminates the need for using new raw materials.

Example of PVC pipes
Concrete pipes. Credit: Clodagh Da Paixao on Unsplash.

Alternatives to PVC Pipes

Ductile iron, copper, thermally stable and non-leachable polymers, or concrete materials are recommended to replace PVC pipes.⁵ All of these are readily available and increasing demand should decrease cost in the long term.

Alternatives to Vinyl Flooring

Linoleum: Chic, colorful, durable, and sustainable, linoleum wins over vinyl in every category. This flooring is made from natural, renewable materials: linseed oil, tree resins, recycled wood flour, cork dust, mineral pigments, and canvas. Because linoleum’s dyes are dispersed throughout its entire depth, its designs will stay brighter than vinyl’s surface-level printed colors. Linoleum lasts from 25 years to 40 years or more.

Hardwood Flooring: The platonic ideal of flooring, hardwood is beautiful, classic, and durable. Because hardwood is usually sealed, it resists staining. In case of scuffs or dents, hardwood can be sanded down and re-sealed instead of replacing the whole floor or section.  Hardwood floors are a desired commodity and will quickly raise your home’s value on the market. Lastly, hardwood is a renewable and sustainable alternative to vinyl, especially when responsibly harvested.  Remember, purchasing wood creates demand for forest products; preventing forested land from being converted to row crops reduces the risk of soil depletion and erosion.

Reclaimed Wood: Like hardwood flooring, reclaimed wood brings stunning natural texture into your home, all without taxing our resources or your wallet. Old antique reclaimed wood may be even more durable than new wood, as 50 to 100 years of expansion reduces the wood’s moisture content and diminishes its tendency to warp in high humidity or temperatures. Sourcing from a local source—such as a nearby barn or school—can help reduce the price and carbon footprint even more.

Cork: Durable, hypoallergenic, unique, and eco-friendly, cork is a happy medium between hardwood and vinyl flooring. Similar to vinyl, cork is relatively inexpensive and comes in small sheets or planks. Cork, like hardwood, is a beautiful natural material that can be sustainably harvested. However, unlike hardwood, cork reacts less dramatically to changes in temperature and humidity; also, cork’s harvesting process (it is carefully peeled off) kills no trees. Cork can last 40 years or more.

Bamboo forest. Credit: Luca Florio on Unsplash

Bamboo: New flooring technology allows this bamboo grass to be woven into dense planks that rival the hardness of red oak. Different dye patterns can mimic your other favorite woods, too. Because properly harvested bamboo shoots can regrow in five to six years, this material is considered a renewable resource. Bamboo is often cheaper than wood and can last for more than 25 years.

Alternatives to Vinyl Signage

Why Use Alternatives to Vinyl Signage?

Traditional vinyl sign making processes produce more waste than product (often 50 – 90% waste), and vinyl is a noxious material.  In combination, this means that even a small sign has a tremendous environmental impact. Additionally, there are many alternatives to vinyl.  For consumers or sign companies looking to take more responsibility for their ecological impact, we recommend starting small and embracing continuous ecological improvement as a business practice.

Vinyl Decals and Vinyl Labels

Exterior ADA Signs for Sign Specifications Page
Exterior and Extreme Durability ADA Signs

For manufacturers, printing directly onto your substrate (base material) can be the preferred alternative to vinyl decals. This method eliminates the need to align decals manually, thus reducing the risk of misalignment or waste. Furthermore, no vinyl is used. Many local printers, as well as Green Dot Sign®, offer this service. Depending on volume and personnel considerations, manufacturers may also consider purchasing screen or UV printers to complete this process in-house.  Green Dot Sign® offers consulting services for manufacturers to assist with this evaluation.

For storefront decals, consider hanging a wood-based sign that can be seen through the storefront window glass. Or, go classic and return to hand-painted or gold leaf lettering.

Vinyl Banners

Few comparable alternatives to vinyl banners exist, and this may be a good thing. Manufacturing one-use-plastics with a limited lifespan is never compatible with minimizing our carbon footprint and should be avoided whenever possible. However, solid aluminum with UV printed graphics is a good alternative for long term use banners.

Vinyl Car Wraps

Rather than using environmentally irresponsible PVC films, 3M 480 is an excellent PVC-free alternative. 3M 480 may be pricey today, but high predicted demand and volume production will drive down the costs in the near future. We recommend all retailers and developers require their signage purchases to be PVC-free, especially since there are readily available alternatives. Classic hand-painted lettering is another great option.

PVC Medical Supplies

Several manufacturers of medical supplies have committed to offering products free from PVC. Companies B. Braun Medical Inc., Hospira Inc., and Baxter Inc. have committed to utilizing a PVC-free and DPHA-free propylene in production as of 2006.²³ 

A Case Study: SC Johnson and Profit vs. Trust

An offshoot of PVC, polymer polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC), is best known for its application in Saran™ Wrap. This popular food wrap was first introduced to the market in 1953 and, as part of the SC Johnson family, for over 50 years was the most iconic product of its kind. However, in 2004 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, environmental groups, and consumers began to express concern over the use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC).¹³

SC Johnson listened and rushed to remove harmful materials from their products. Although the focus of reform was only on the PVC polymer, SC Johnson wondered if they should replace PVDC as well.  In Harvard Business Review, SC Johnson CEO Frisk Johnson explained the company’s thought process:

“We had a choice: Risk losing customers and market share by replacing the original product with an inferior one, or continue with the original formulation and risk losing the goodwill we had built over the years with consumers and other stakeholders.” 

Thus, the recipe for Saran™ Wrap swapped PVC for the safer LDPE in 2004. This is not the first time the company has put the health of its consumers over profit: Back in 1975, they were one of the first brands to remove chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from all of their aerosol products, taking action even before government regulations and against the wishes of manufacturers of parallel products. 

Although customers noticed a difference from the original quality and the market share dropped from 18% in 2004 to only 11% in 2015, Frisk Johnson proclaimed he had no regrets about this difficult decision: “Trustworthiness is the most important quality a company can have,” greater than profit. Furthermore, the decline in food wraps only reflected the rise in newer, safer, and healthier methods of food storage: Ziploc­­® containers and bags, also part of the SC Johnson brand.

Saran™ Wrap performed spectacularly on the market for over half of a century and was a staple in many homes, but SC Johnson recognized that the wellbeing of consumers and the environment came before anything else. By listening to consumers and working to innovate their products, SC Johnson retained trust while also delivering new solutions that work even better.

It is time for vinyl manufacturers and consumers to realize the same thing: while vinyl has allowed great technological advancements and higher quality of life for many people, we are morally obligated to search for, propose, and support alternatives. 

How We Can Do Better

Buy and Use Earth-Friendly Goods

  • Seek out sustainable alternatives and eco-friendly products as your budget allows
  • Replace your vinyl and other harmful products with earth-friendly alternatives (see the list above for some ideas)
  • Minimize your use of new materials: Reduce, reuse, recycle!

Be Curious and Don’t Settle for Less

  • Ask questions about the products you use the most. How do their ingredients, manufacturing, and disposal impact you and the planet?
  • Do research and embrace transparent companies with nothing to hide
  • Trust your gut and only by from products and companies you trust

Share Your Findings

  • Share your sustainable ideas with friends and family and create a community of support and innovation
  • Post about your sustainable changes on social media
  • Update your business practices to include eco-friendly materials and policies
  • Communicate your thoughts to product manufacturers via social media, phone calls, or letters. SC Johnson and other responsible brands listen to your feedback.
  • Write to and call your government representatives. Remember, the exposure levels of PVC workers only improved after efforts from the EPA and other outside voices

Wrap-Up: How to Have an Honest Conversation About Vinyl

From vinyl records to lifesaving medical tubing to building affordable homes for people in need, the technological breakthroughs enabled by vinyl have done tremendous good for many people. Although the products made from vinyl are not themselves bad, we as conscious consumers must consider the environmental, social, and economic downsides of PVC. We must rethink our relationship with this harmful substance and seek out alternatives.

Although making changes and encouraging others may seem daunting, your individual voice has the capacity for great influence. Starting an honest conversation about vinyl is the first step.

As an individual consumer, you are in control of the types of products and materials you buy and promote; it is you who decides if the products we use today will destroy or enable a healthy planet. 

vinyl, pvc, sustainable alternatives to vinyl
Honest conversations about vinyl consider the health of humans and the planet. Credit: Noah Buscher on Unsplash.

Plasticizers and the Green Dot Sign® Journey

A note from Simon Nussbaum, Green Dot Sign® Co-Founder

We started Green Dot Sign® to change the way people thought signs should, and could, be made.  As longtime industry professionals, we knew firsthand the rampant waste in the $50 billion per year US sign industry. And almost all of the waste comes from non-biodegradable fossil fuel-derived plastics like vinyl, acrylic, and polycarbonate.

Trying to come up with a solution to this tremendous environmental hazard, I spent a year holed up in a garage and, after lots of coffee and even more failed attempts, eventually walked out of that garage with a product that reduced plastic by 99% (or more) and made practically no waste because all the plastic in it is 3D printed.  From this humble origin we hope that all brands owners will consider a Green Dot Sign®, or other sustainable signage, instead of the ubiquitous traditional signs made entirely from fossil fuel derived plastics.

Though we were happy with the plastic reduction, when we started to consider an HPD® or Red List Free Declare® label by the International Living Future Institute® (ILFI®) we realized many other areas to consider when designing a sustainable sign.

It turns out one of our six 3D printing inputs had two types of phthalate in it, and phthalates are on the Red List.  I had no idea what phthalate or a plasticizer was, but search engines quickly fixed that.  Turns out, phthalates are a common plasticizer used to make plastics supple and flexible.  These chemicals also mess with hormones, for humans and wildlife.

So basically, we (modern society) are busy producing a chemical to make life a bit more convenient for the short term, but in the long term it will kill us faster and mess with how our biology was designed to present itself.  Yikes!  Our original phthalate-containing product was not what we wanted to espouse at Green Dot Sign®. Despite our good intentions, we knew we had the responsibility to change, and fast.

Thankfully, there were readily available, cost-equivalent alternatives made in Europe.  The alternative was validated and we are happy to say all our flat and 3D printing is phthalate-free as of January 2021.

The takeaway is that a little bit of effort, combined with using systems that experts already have put in place, can make a big difference. For your individual or professional life, I encourage everyone to do the same and be the change we need to make sure our shared planet is a beautiful as it can be for future generations.

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Rachel Ellis