Update! HEALTHY BUILDING NETWORK IS NOW HABITABLE.
Update! HEALTHY BUILDING NETWORK IS NOW HABITABLE.
Update! HEALTHY BUILDING NETWORK IS NOW HABITABLE.
Update! HEALTHY BUILDING NETWORK IS NOW HABITABLE.
Update! HEALTHY BUILDING NETWORK IS NOW HABITABLE.
Update! HEALTHY BUILDING NETWORK IS NOW HABITABLE.

In this opinion piece, architect Martha Lewis addresses the ecological polycrisis of the twenty-first century and its impact on the architectural sector, emphasizing the urgent need for architects to reassess material choices and construction methodologies to mitigate environmental consequences.

The Resource Efficiency Collective at Cambridge University explores how to deliver future energy and material services while reducing resource use and environmental impact, aiming to find suitable metrics and solutions for a more resource-efficient society.

Project Drawdown is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing effective, science-based climate solutions, fostering bold new climate leadership, and promoting new narratives and voices to help the world stop climate change.

Project TENDR is an alliance of scientists, health professionals, and advocates dedicated to protecting children from toxic chemicals and pollutants that harm brain development, focusing on ending disproportionate impacts on low-income and minority families.

The new Global Framework on Chemicals envisions a planet free of harm from chemicals and waste, covering the life cycle of chemicals, promoting initiatives for their sound management, and involving stakeholders from various sectors and levels to ensure a safe, healthy, and sustainable future.

The American Chemistry Council promotes chemical recycling as a solution to plastic waste but this article highlights concerns raised by environmentalists about its efficacy and environmental impact, as well as the lobbying efforts to reclassify it as manufacturing in 24 states.

This video describes why plastic ends up in the environment and the solutions needed to disrupt the unsustainable use of plastic by holding manufacturers accountable for the products they make.

Dr. Jonathan Foley, Executive Director of Project Drawdown, talks about how carbon offsets and “net zero emissions” claims are a dangerous distraction to meaningful climate change initiatives.

If we are to have any chance of addressing the global plastics crisis, Polyvinyl Chloride plastic (PVC) also known as vinyl, has got to go.

It cannot be produced sustainably or equitably. It cannot be “optimized.” It cannot be recycled. It will never find a place in a circular economy, and it makes it harder to achieve circularity with other materials, including other plastics.

There are three reasons for this: technical, economic, and behavioral. The inherent qualities of PVC and its cousin, CPVC, make it among the most technologically challenging plastics to recycle. Like most plastics, PVC is made with fossil fuel feedstocks. Unlike other plastics, PVC/vinyl also contains substantial amounts of chlorine, upwards of 40%. This is the C in PVC, and this chlorine content adds an additional layer of negative impacts to the earth and its people, social inequity, and an impediment to recycling that cannot be overcome. Recyclers consider it a contaminant to other plastic feedstock streams.1 It mucks up the machines and the already perilous economics of plastics recycling.

There is an emerging global consensus on this point, albeit euphemistically stated. The Ellen MacArthur New Plastics Economy Project consists of representatives from the world’s largest plastic makers and users, along with governments, academics, and NGOs. In 2017 it reached the conclusion that PVC was an “uncommon” plastic that was unlikely to be recycled and should be avoided in favor of other more recyclable packaging materials.2 “Uncommon” in the diplomatic parlance of international multistakeholder initiatives means unrecyclable. The project also took note of the many toxic emissions associated with PVC production.

That’s not surprising since after 30 years of hollow promises and pilot projects doomed to fail, virtually no post-consumer PVC is recycled.3 Conversely, leading brands with forward-looking materials policies such such as Nike, Apple, and Google have prioritized PVC phase outs.4

But in the building industry, PVC rages on. Virgin vinyl LVT flooring is the fastest growing product in the flooring sector. So much so that in 2017 sustainability leader Interface introduced a new product line of virgin vinyl LVT, despite forecasting just one year before that by 2020 the company would “source 95 percent of its materials from recycled or biobased resources.”5

The current flooring market demands the impossible – aesthetic qualities and durability at a price unmatchable by non-vinyl floor coverings. A price that is unmatchable because at every stage of vinyl production, the societal costs of its poisonous environmental health consequences are externalized, subsidized, paid for by the people who live in communities that have become virtual poster children for environmental injustice and oppression. Places like Mossville, LA; Freeport, TX; and the Xinjiang Province in China, home to the oppressed Uighur population. As we detail in our exhaustive Chlorine and Building Materials report, the unique chlorine component of PVC plastic contributes to a range of toxic pollution problems starting with the fact that chlorine production relies upon either mercury-, asbestos-, or PFAS-based processes. This is in addition to the onerous environmental health burdens of petrochemical processing that burden all plastics.

It is true that all plastics contribute to environmental injustices. Virtually all plastics are made from fossil fuel feedstocks, and all plastics share abysmally low recovery and cycling rates. Still, independent experts agree that some plastics are worse than others, and PVC is among the worst.6 Additionally, most uses of PVC have readily available alternatives or solutions that are within reach. Certainly there are non-PVC alternatives for flooring. What can’t be beat is the cost – that is, the low purchase price at the point of sale, subsidized by the sacrifices we ignore in the communities where the plastics are manufactured and the waste is dealt with. And BIPOC communities bear the disproportionate burden of it all. Acknowledging and addressing this tradeoff is at the root of the behavioral change that stands between us and a just and healthy circular economy.

In his influential book How To Be An Antiracist, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi argues that if we recognize we live in a society with many racial inequities – and acknowledge that since no racial group is inferior or superior to another, the cause of these inequities are policies and practices – then to be anti-racist is to challenge those policies and practices where we can and create new ones that create equity and justice for all.

Imagine if as part of our commitment to equity in our sustainability efforts, we recognized, acknowledged, and did what we could to address the racial inequities associated with PVC production, and committed right now to stop using PVC unless it was absolutely essential. The plastics industry would howl and point out inconsistencies, question priorities, highlight unintended consequences. We would all feel a tinge of whataboutism – what about carbon, or this other injustice, or that shortcoming of the alternatives. But it is clear that widespread incrementalism is failing us on so many fronts, none more than the environmental injustices that are hardwired into our supply chains.

In fact, there are many examples of companies and building projects that have prioritized PVC-free alternatives based upon principles of equity and justice. We need more leaders in the field to join those who are abandoning vinyl in product types that have superior options. Our CEO Gina Ciganik used a non-PVC flooring in 2015 at The Rose, her last development project prior to joining HBN.

“After learning about toxic chemical additives to PVC, its inability to be recycled, and the human health and environmental damage it imparts on fenceline communities, I was no longer willing to be a participant in that planetary damage when there are alternatives. The architectural team for the project at MSR Design selected the Armstrong Striations product instead.”
Gina Ciganik

First Community Housing, another affordable housing leader, has been using linoleum for many years for similar reasons. In their Leigh Avenue Apartments project. Forbo’s Marmoleum Click tiles were the flooring of choice. 

Vinyl is not an essential material for any of the largest surface areas of our building projects – flooring, wall coverings, or roofing. It may often be the conventional choice in conventional buildings, but it should not be the conventional choice in buildings that promise to be green, healthy, and equitable. LVT may be the fastest growing flooring product in the world, but it is a throwback to the inequitable, unsustainable world we say is unacceptable, not the world we are trying to create.

Habitable can help you start by using our Informed™ product guidance, which helps identify worst and best in class products that are healthier for people and the planet.  So why not start here and now, with a principled stand of refusing to profit from unjust, frequently racist, externalized costs?

SOURCES

  1. https://plasticsrecycling.org/pvc-design-guidance
  2. See pp. 27-29: www.newplasticseconomy.org/assets/doc/New-Plastics-Economy_Catalysing-Action_13-1-17.pdf
  3. See e.g. Figure 1: https://css.umich.edu/publication/plastics-us-toward-material-flow-characterization-production-markets-and-end-life
  4. See e.g.: www.apple.com/environment/answers (Apple); www.greenpeace.org/usa/reports/greener-electronics-2017 (Google); www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1998-aug-26-fi-16540-story.html (Nike)
  5. www.greenbiz.com/article/inside-interfaces-bold-new-mission-achieve-climate-take-back: “Going Beyond Zero” The march towards Mission Zero continued unabated, however, with consistent year-over-year improvement in most metrics. Today, the company forecasts that by 2020 it will halve its energy use, power 87 percent of its operations with renewable energy, cut water intake by 90 percent, reduce greenhouse gas emissions 95 percent (and its overall carbon footprint by 80 percent), send nothing to landfills, and source 95 percent of its materials from recycled or biobased resources.
  6. www.cleanproduction.org/resources/entry/plastics-scorecard-press-release

Have you ever seen a building product advertise that it contains recycled content and wondered what that material actually was and where it came from? We certainly have. Many building products advertise recycled content, but most often the identity and chemical makeup of the recycled material are not shared.

Using products that contain recycled content can be a great way to reduce environmental impacts and support a circular economy by keeping still-useful materials out of landfills and avoiding the impacts of manufacturing virgin materials. Unfortunately, some recycled materials contain toxic chemicals that come along for the ride when incorporated into new products. For example, 2015 testing of a range of vinyl floors found high levels of toxic lead and cadmium from recycled content in the inner layers of the floors.1

Defining recycled content
Recycled content is broadly broken down into pre-consumer and post-consumer materials. As defined by the U.S. Green Building Council2 : 

  • Post-consumer material is “waste material generated by households or by commercial, industrial, and institutional facilities in their role as end-users of the product, which can no longer be used for its intended purpose.” Some examples of post-consumer recycled material include glass bottles or vehicle tires.
  • Pre-consumer material is “material diverted from the waste stream during the manufacturing process.” This definition excludes reuse of scrap materials back into the same process. Some examples of pre-consumer recycled material include treated waste from coal fired power plants (such as fly ash used in carpets or FGD gypsum used in drywall) or waste wood fiber from a sawmill used in composite wood like medium density fiberboard (MDF).

Ensuring safer recycled materials
While some recycled feedstocks, such as sawdust and glass containers, can be safely recycled into new products, others contain legacy contaminants that can lead to toxic exposures when used in new products. To address the potential for toxic re-exposures from recycled materials, HBN worked  with green building standards such as LEED and Enterprise Green Communities to include credits that consider not just if a product contains recycled content, but also what that content is and if it has been screened for potential hazards. 

Enterprise Green Communities Criterion 6.2, Recycled Content and Ingredient Transparency, acknowledges that the need for content transparency applies to recycled content as well as virgin materials. It calls for using products that contain post-consumer recycled content where the origin of the recycled content is publicly disclosed along with information on how the recycled content is screened for or otherwise avoids heavy metals. 

Mind the data gap
Product manufacturers may not always have detailed content information available for the recycled materials they use. Supply chain tracking and internal screening requirements can help manufacturers ensure that the recycled materials they incorporate into new products don’t bring along hazardous contaminants. 

Building a Sustainable Future
Removing toxic chemicals from new products makes a commercial afterlife possible, supports a safe and circular economy, and minimizes negative human health impacts. Using materials that are recoverable at the end of their life and building  infrastructure to reuse or recycle them will lessen future impacts. Fully and transparently documenting product contents now also supports future recycling by identifying materials that may later be determined to be toxic. 

As a building material specifier, the next time you consider a product with recycled content, make sure to ask the manufacturer for full transparency of product content, including where that recycled content came from.

Together we can reduce human exposure and work towards a safe and circular economy.

SOURCES

  1. Vallette, Jim. “Post-Consumer Polyvinyl Chloride in Building Products.” Healthy Building Network, 2015. https://healthybuilding.net/uploads/files/post-consumer-polyvinyl-chloride-pvc-report.pdf.
  2. USGBC. “Building Product Disclosure and Optimization – Material Ingredients.” U.S. Green Building Council. Accessed January 27, 2021. https://www.usgbc.org/credits/new-construction-core-and-shell-schools-new-construction-retail-new-construction-healthca-24.