Greenpeace urges European Union ban on PVCs

By Gillian Handyside, Reuters
Copyright 1998 Reuters News Service
April 23, 1998

BRUSSELS (April 23, 1998 7:25 p.m. EDT - The environmental group Greenpeace called on Friday for the phasing out of PVC or vinyl on the grounds that there was no safe way to dispose of the plastic.

"There are no environmentally sound disposal options for PVC waste," Greenpeace said in a report entitled "PVC plastic: a looming waste crisis."

PVC manufacture uses almost 30 percent of the world's output of chlorine which becomes more toxic when added to organic molecules, the report said. Other chlorine-containing products, including the carcinogenic DDT and ozone-destroying CFCs, have been banned in many countries.

Some 20 million tonnes of PVC are produced worldwide a year, a source at Greenpeace said.

Paul Jackson, general affairs manager of the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers, told Reuters there was "always room for improvement in every industry" but there was not enough scientific evidence to prove PVC was unsafe.

Greenpeace's Axel Stinghofen told reporters PVC caused health and environment problems from production to its disposal through recycling, incineration or dumping on landfill sites.

Incinerating PVC produced emissions of carcinogenic dioxins and corrosive hydrochloric acid as well as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, said Greenpeace's Wytze van der Naald, one of the report's authors.

The substance could be neutralized by adding large amounts of lime but this triples the volume of waste and did not eliminate toxic heavy metals like lead and cadmium, he said.

Disposing of PVC on waste tips was no solution either, Singhofen added, because the toxins could leach into the soil and water and accumulate in animals and humans, especially endangering the health of breast-fed babies.

Van der Naald said independent studies commissioned by Greenpeace showed that less than one percent of PVC worldwide was recycled because this option was not economically viable.

The need to mix additives with the PVC polymer and the difficulty of separating it from other materials, such as in car parts, meant the recycled product was impure. Virgin PVC had to be added before the material could be reused, thus defeating the whole purpose of recycling, he said.

The only safe form of disposal was in storage in sealed above-ground containers, he concluded.

Jackson of the manufacturers' society said it was possible to dispose of PVCs safely.

"Landfill is not dangerous because there is only a minimum of leaching, incineration is not dangerous if done in modern plants," he said.

Some but not all recycling was economically viable, Jackson said, adding that mixing new and used PVC was better than using 100 percent virgin material.

Greenpeace predicted the volume of PVC waste would soar as production rose and goods manufactured in the 1960s and 1970s came to the end of their useful lives. The EU produces five million tonnes of PVC a year -- about a quarter of total world production -- mostly in Germany, Belgium, France and Italy.

Greenpeace said it was possible within five years to substitute all PVC in Europe for less harmful, existing alternatives such as polyethylenes and bio-based polymers.

These alternatives were already economically viable for some uses. In others, prices were falling as production rose.

The European Commission promised last July to study ways of dealing with PVC waste after EU governments rejected its proposal for a ban, but it has not yet published any conclusions.

Any ban would affect PVC imports from non-EU countries.

The publication of the Greenpeace report coincided with a meeting on Friday of the EU's eco-toxicity committee, which was expected to recommend a partial ban on soft PVC toys on the grounds that the softeners used are harmful to children.

The PVC industry last month called the committee's draft report on PVC toys "nonsense and scaremongering."

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