Environmentally Friendly

Does Vinyl Have a Place in Sustainable Design?

In its myriad uses, vinyl combines the attributes of traditional materials with advanced performance properties, including durability, versatility, low maintenance, and improved energy efficiency. It has been specified for use in many different types of nonresidential applications, ranging from resilient flooring (sheet and tile) and fenestration applications (i.e., window frames, glass doors) to wall coverings for commercial interiors.

In electrical applications, the material is frequently selected for wire and cable insulation/jacketing, along with rigid non-metallic (NM) conduit and cable management systems.

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is employed in several piping applications, including water delivery, sprinkler systems, sewage transport, and drain/waste/vent (DWV). Vinyl’s durability also makes it suitable for fencing, decking, railing, and other outdoor living products (i.e., pergolas, arbors, gazebos, and bridges), along with roofing membranes and exterior siding for light commercial buildings, assisted living facilities, apartment buildings, and office parks.

However, awareness of vinyl’s benefits is often undercut by a perceived notion the material—its production, its use, and its disposal—is harmful to the environment. Organizations such as Greenpeace have referred to the vinyl industry as “One of the ’most toxic-producing industries on the planet,”1 while the Healthy Building Network (HBN) has charged the material contains/emits carcinogens harmful to human health.2

Many of the attacks on vinyl’s ‘Greenness’ stem from gross exaggerations of scientifically accepted understanding. Far too many in the construction/design community have inadvertently absorbed this misinformation, which means the discussion about vinyl occasionally centers more on fiction than fact.

There are typically three charges leveled against vinyl, one for each stage of the material’s life:

  1. All vinyl production is inherently bad for the environment.
  2. Once installed, vinyl emits carcinogens, and is therefore bad for the indoor environment.
  3. In the waste stream, disposed vinyl emits toxins and pollutes the environment.
In the interest of providing some balance to the controversy, next feature explores these criticisms, and explains why properly specified vinyl has a place in sustainable design.

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