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Three Aspects of Sustainability: Useful Shorthand for Understanding a Complex Idea

May 2015

Sustainability is a label applied to everything today, from products and materials, to industries and organizations. We hear about it all the time, but what does the term ‘sustainability’ really mean? Many experts, including the United Nations (UN Environment Program) and the U.S. Federal Government ( environmental stewardship and compliance for Federal facility managers) agree it is taking care of human needs today without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.

In discussing sustainability, emphasis is often placed only on environmental factors. But a full grasp of sustainability must encompass three interdependent and overlapping aspects that can help to understand a very complex idea. They are:

  • Economic - Dealing with the systems by which goods and services are produced, sold and purchased, productive employment, and the benefits it brings to people and society. It’s about the way we manage money, materials and other resources on a local, national and global scale.
  • Environmental - Including energy and water efficiency, material selection and resource conservation, emissions, indoor environments, land use, and other related methods of managing the environment in which we live.
  • Social - Relating to human society, the interaction of individuals and groups, and the welfare of human beings as members of that society. It’s about forming cooperative, beneficial and interdependent relationships in organized communities.

What does all this have to do with materials? For the vinyl industry, all three of these sustainability aspects are embodied in the materials and products its members work with every day; products developed to keep people healthy, safe and comfortable. These include non-corroding PVC pipes that make delivery of safe, clean drinking water possible in distribution systems expected to last more than 100 years, to cladding and window components that enable affordable, economical and energy-efficient housing on a scale unmatched anywhere else in the world.

This material is fundamental to connecting complex digital networks that make the world’s information economy possible, all because of its inherent electrical insulation and fire-resistance properties. It also facilitates healthcare through products that control infection and makes possible the safe storage of blood, impacting the health of millions of people around the world every day.

Vinyl’s ingredients are derived from two abundant natural resources. What differentiates vinyl from other plastics is that fact that it contains 57% chlorine, derived from common salt, and 43% ethylene from natural gas. Most other plastics are derived almost entirely from petroleum. Vinyl is also one of the most efficient plastics because the resin manufacturing process converts over 94% of raw ingredients into useable products, a high number when compared to other resins.

At the heart of vinyl’s role in sustainability is the industry’s commitment to use natural resources wisely and efficiently, while protecting the health and safety of thousands of workers and the communities in which they reside. The industry continually emphasizes plant safety, resulting in a worker illness and injury rate that is 1/3 that of the overall chemistry industry, and 1/6 that of overall manufacturing. (Source: VI third-party validated surveys, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data).

The U.S. vinyl industry has a long history of improving its manufacturing technology, resulting in significant reductions in emissions and worker injury and illness rates. Examples include an 82% reduction in dioxin emissions since 2000 (source: EPA TRI air & water data) and a 75% reduction in vinyl chloride emissions since 1987, while vinyl production increased 87% over the same time period (source: EPA TRI and ACC Resin Report Data).

To add context to these numbers, the U.S. vinyl industry emits about 6 to 7 grams of dioxin per year, equivalent in weight to about 100 grains of salt. (Source: EPA TRI data). This is a tiny fraction of the dioxin that annually comes from diesel truck exhaust and emissions from backyard trash burning.

Durability is an asset in sustainability terms and depending on the design application, vinyl products can last for many years to many decades. PVC pipe does not rust or corrode and has a smooth interior, so it takes less pumping energy to move water through a distribution system. Fewer leaks and lower breakage rates result in cost and energy savings. It also doesn’t support bio-film, which can contribute to water-borne illnesses impacting community health.

Of the 15 billion pounds of vinyl resin produced in 2013 in North American, 70% was used in durable products. But while being durable, vinyl is also a thermoplastic and is therefore inherently recyclable and ‘molecule efficient.’ Nearly 1 billion pounds of vinyl material is recycled annually, including post-industrial and post-consumer recycling. (Source: 2014 VI /Tarnell Recycling Survey).

The use of vinyl flooring, fabrics and wall covering in schools, healthcare facilities and in public transportation (buses, airplanes and trains) reduces maintenance and replacement costs and helps control the spread of bacteria, keeping people healthy and providing beautiful, functional indoor spaces for productive employees and satisfied customers.

Vinyl building system components like windows, doors and reflective membrane roofing are designed to manage heat transfer, making them efficient in the context of building energy performance. Many vinyl products meet the criteria for U.S. EPA ENERGY STAR and can help buildings meet the objectives of USGBC’s LEED and GBI’s Green Globes whole-building ‘green’ rating systems.

We are learning more about what sustainability means in a complex and technology-dependent world economy. All human activity impacts our planet, so it is important that the choices we make with regard to those impacts be good ones; negative impacts should be minimized and positive impacts should be maximized. This balancing of impacts and choices should, overall, lead to the best and most sustainable outcomes.

The vinyl industry recognizes that buildings have a significant impact on sustainability, especially when it comes to energy, water, carbon footprint and material usage. So it is important that choices made for the products and materials used in them are positive ones. In fact, there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ materials. There are only more-sustainable or less-sustainable ways of using the materials available to solve the design problems at hand.

In summary, the vinyl industry and the products made from this important material contribute in many ways to achieving the goals of sustainability. When looked at through the lens of environmental, economic and social impacts, vinyl enables human needs to be met today with full respect to the needs of future generations as well.