Polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC or vinyl, is an inexpensive plastic so versatile it has become completely pervasive in modern society. The list of products made from PVC is exhaustive, ranging from phonograph records to drainage and potable piping, water bottles, cling film, credit cards and toys. More uses include window frames, rain gutters, wall paneling, doors, wallpapers, flooring, garden furniture, binders and even pens. Even imitation leather is made of it. In fact, it's hard to turn anywhere without seeing some form of this plastic.
In 1913, polyvinyl chloride became the first synthetic product ever patented. Its wide use is now in question, however, as it comes from a highly toxic production industry and potentially remains an environmental threat throughout all phases of its life. In addition to the toxic chemical processing required to make PVC, mounting research indicates a tendency for some products to leech harmful chemicals, with a possible link to health risks and environmental contamination.
Additionally, PVC is not biodegradable, a fact that manufacturers promote as a plus, while environmentalists count it among many of the plastic's drawbacks. They point to the ever-growing amounts of discarded products and shrinking landfills, and the potential for long-term leeching that could lead to ground water contamination. This material should not be burned, as it can release harmful gas, and recycling it is difficult because of the diverse additives used in various products.
One of the byproducts of the polyvinyl chloride manufacturing process is organochlorine. Though chlorine is found naturally in the environment in minerals such as salt, this type is different. Highly reactive, its effect in concentrated form can be very destructive, as seen in other manufacturing industries. Some familiar forms of organochlorines include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), banned in the 1970s; halon and CFCs, responsible for destroying the ozone; and DDT. Purportedly, the production of PVC results in the generation of more organochlorines than any other material.
Aside from the environment, human health is also a concern. Studies regarding initial outgassing of chemicals from plastics like those used in shower curtains, flooring and vinyl car interiors are ongoing. Leeching of a softening chemical called DEHP (di-2-ethyl hexyl phthalate) in products like vinyl IV bags used in the neonatal wards of some hospitals has also been a concern. Alternate softening agents are reportedly under consideration by the industry but require further testing.
Though polyvinyl chloride products have been used without apparent problems to human health for many years, the concern is that growing toxic waste created by the process, possible leeching, and plastic's non-biodegradable status will eventually and inevitably lead to problems that could be catastrophic. The conservative trend is headed towards environmentally friendly, biodegradable alternatives. Among others, these include wood, paper, copper, steel, and clay. Chlorine-free plastics, such as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polyisobutylene, may also be preferred over PVC, although most of these are not biodegradable.