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, w