VI Says Life Cycle Analysis Shows Vinyl is Green
For years, elements of the environmentalist community have targeted vinyl as an inappropriate material for use in “green” projects. As a result, the U.S. Green Building Council has been under pressure to create a special credit in its LEED rating system against the use of vinyl. Keith Christman of the Vinyl Institute reports that the task group formed to look at the issue has determined there is no reason to penalize the use of vinyl, however.
“The available evidence does not support a conclusion that PVC is consistently worse than alternative materials on a life cycle environmental and health basis,” the report states. Further, the committee found there’s no information or data to suggest the LEED rating system should include a credit for eliminating PVC or any particular material. “With respect to a PVC-related credit, the available evidence indicates that for some product categories such a simple credit could steer designers to use materials which performed worse over their life cycles with respect to the bulk of the impact categories,” the task group stated.
The Vinyl Institute points out that, among other things, the group’s review determined that energy efficiency during the use of windows dominates all other environmental impacts. A study by life cycle assessment experts Greg Norris and Peter Yost shows that in long-lasting products, the use phase is the most important phase in determining life-cycle impact, dominating the impact of the product’s manufacture, Christman adds. “Vinyl’s energy efficiency, thermal insulating value, easy maintenance and superior durability provide excellent life-cycle benefits,” he notes.
Another study conducted by Franklin Associates shows that using vinyl over some competing window frame materials saves the United States nearly 2 trillion BTUs of energy per year—enough to meet the yearly electrical needs of 20,000 single-family homes, Christman reports. That study also found that vinyl windows require only one-third as much energy to manufacture as aluminum windows, he states.
Vinyl’s thermal efficiency is well known in the window and door industry, but Christman points to other attributes that suggest the material has an important role in green building.
First, he notes, vinyl makes superior thermal properties affordable. Vinyl also can be reprocessed and recycled repeatedly, he emphasizes. Manufacturing scrap is routinely recycled directly back into vinyl products, making vinyl window manufacturing a resource-efficient operation. In fact, 99 percent of the vinyl used by processors ends up in a finished product. A comprehensive study of vinyl recycling completed in 1999 found that in 1997 more than 1 billion pounds of vinyl materials of all types were recovered and recycled into useful products. Twenty million pounds of that was recycled at the post-consumer level.
Successful vinyl scrap buy-back programs initiated by window manufacturers have led to the diversion of more than 8 million pounds of window profile waste from landfills annually. Manufacturers also have produced window frames containing up to 25 percent recycled content, Christman reports.
Vinyl windows are so durable that the vast majority of them installed over the past 25 years are still in use and therefore not candidates for end-of-life or post-consumer recycling. In many cases, the windows might outlive the house they’re in. In that instance, they can be removed and reused.
When end-of-life for a vinyl window does come, however, recycling works, according to VI. As with any building product, the key to post-consumer vinyl window recycling is to find a cost-effective way to collect, separate, process and then transport reclaimed materials to a manufacturer for use in new products.
Vinyl product manufacturers have been a target of environmental groups for a number of years, but VI points out that vinyl can be formulated into products that meet health, safety and other requirements set forth by such agencies as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Sanitation Foundation and Consumer Product Safety Commission, as well as model building codes. The vinyl industry has subjected its products to extensive testing to demonstrate that they are safe to use, VI notes. It maintains an active testing program to address new standards, as well as new concerns, as they develop.
The vinyl industry also has taken initiatives to protect workers and communities during manufacturing operations, VI points out. Vinyl resin manufacturers have tracked key emissions and worked on reducing them for years, with good results. Among the emissions the industry has worked to reduce is dioxin. Vinyl manufacturing today accounts for less than 1 percent of dioxin releases to the environment—less than many other manufacturing operations and building products, according to EPA reports.
With respect to combustion, dioxin can be formed when anything containing chlorine burns. Because chlorine is so pervasive in the environment, dioxin is a byproduct of natural events like forest fires, lightning and volcanoes, as well as human activity such as burning wood and backyard trash, diesel vehicle emissions and various manufacturing processes. According to VI, the biggest manmade source of dioxin today by far is backyard burning of trash. The good news, according to the U.S. EPA, is that dioxin emissions from human sources have declined by more than 90 percent in recent decades, and further declines continue to be documented.
More information about vinyl and its environmental impact is available from VI at its Web site, www.vinylinfo.org.