The jury is still out on the environmental impacts of vinyl. Polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC or vinyl, is a synthetic material used in a variety of applications, including flooring, which has caused an ongoing debate: is vinyl a suitable material for sustainable building? At this point, there may not be a clear-cut answer for product specifiers.
"Our goal is to do what is right for the environment and our clients health. Therefore, all of our interiors are as sustainable as possible," says Kristin Dorais, Sr. Interior Designer, Integrated Architecture (Grand Rapids, Mich.). "In the past, when we have specified vinyl, we evaluated it based upon the application, how the vinyl is manufactured, its recycled content, life cycle and VOC levels. As the sustainable movement has progressed and we gain more knowledge, we've moved to a more thorough evaluation of the product. We now review the product's "recycled" content and how that is going to affect the environment and indoor air quality in the future."
Several vinyl-flooring manufacturers have pledged to offer a sustainable vinyl product. Tarkett Commercial (www.tarkett.com), for example, is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and considers it their mission to make prudent use of available natural resources, and develop new ways to become even more environmentally responsible and proactive.
Lonseal, also a vinyl flooring manufacturer, has done extensive research on PVC. In the article "Vinyl Under Crossfire: Navigating Fact from Fiction in the White-Hot Debate over PVC and the Environment," Lonseal's Tony Sain writes:
"For the second time in five years, the USGBC is bravely wading into the controversy surrounding vinyl. At the request of certain parties in the green community, USGBC is trying to determine whether vinyl (from PVC pipes to vinyl flooring and surfacing) should be considered a hazard to the environment and, in turn, whether the use of vinyl should be discouraged by eco-conscious architects and designers through the USGBC's signature LEED rating system for Green buildings. Much of the fire directed at vinyl comes from such often-esteemed organizations as Greenpeace - which, on its Web site, called the vinyl industry "one of the 'most toxic-producing industries on the planet'" - and the Healthy Building Network - which claims that vinyl contains and emits carcinogens harmful to Human health.
"While no reasonable person would object to the goals behind the green building movement, and while many share this passion for better preserving our Earth's precious resources and natural environment, architects and designers require sound facts in order to make good judgments about the products they specify in their building projects."
Sain reports, however, that the problem with many of the charges being leveled against vinyl is that they are either "gross exaggerations of scientifically-proven facts or in direct contravention to empirical evidence." For Sain's complete article, visit ED+C's and NFT's Web sites at www.edcmag.com or www.ntlfloortrends.com.
Even as the pro-vinyl and anti-vinyl groups continue to weigh in, there may never be a definitive solution to the vinyl debate.
The GREENGUARD Environmental Institute certifies low-emitting interior products, including vinyl flooring and other building materials.
Greenpeace, a well-known environmental organization, is working to eliminate PVC plastic from the environment.
The Healthy Building Network is a national network of green building professionals, environmental and health activists interested in promoting healthier building materials as a means of improving public health and preserving the global environment.
The Resilient Floor Covering Institute is an industry trade association providing information about resilient floor covering products.
The U.S. Green Building Council is reviewing the possible inclusion of a PVC-related credit in the LEED Rating System.
The Vinyl Institute's "Vinyl & the Environment" is a resource for building design professionals.