Danger! It’s PVC, Plastic Number 3

November 2nd, 2010 | Posted by tjones in Air Quality | Environment | Green Homes | Living Green

courtesy flickr user amenagement_numerique

So many everyday items are made with type 3 – or PVC – plastic.  These are familiar products, including pipes, food wrap, plastic packaging, cosmetic bottles, vinyl siding, baby toys and teething rings, computer components, and credit cards.

Despite their ubiquity in the lives of the average consumer, PVC plastics are not recyclable, and are highly dangerous to our health and the environment.  They are products worth spending extra energy to avoid.

Plastics with a #3 stamp on them – the little recycling symbol found on the bottom of many bottles – are made from polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.  The production of PVC is significantly more harmful to the environment than any other plastic, and not only because they are not recyclable.  The process of making PVC plastics involves the fusing of chloride molecules – derived from petroleum – with heavy toxic metals like lead and cadmium.  These toxins stabilize and plasticize PVC, but because of their use and the chemical properties of chlorine, byproducts of PVC production tend to be significantly more toxic and persistent in the ecosystem, traveling up the food chain to people.  As the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice notes, PVC plastic is unique in its risks to health and environment.  No other plastic contains as harmful substances, or as hazardous byproducts, as PVC plastic.

Just like the more infamous toxin Bisphenol A (BPA), the chemical compounds used to produce PVC plastic are prone to leaching.  What this means is that the additives used to produce the plastic do not chemically bind to the plastic itself, and can release into the water or food the plastic holds, or can pass directly into the body if a child or animal chews on the product.  PVC plastics can also off-gas, meaning that those toxins can pass into the home environment to be inhaled.  One noted chemical that leaches from PVC plastic is DEHP, which the EPA has designated as a probable carcinogen.

Beyond the threat of leaching, PVC plastics are also not recyclable simply because they contain so many potentially hazardous byproducts. Mixed in with other recyclables, like type #1 PETE, a stray #3 PVC plastic container can ruin an entire batch of new plastic.  When melted during the recycling process, PVC plastic forms dioxins, one of the deadliest family of chemicals known to man.  Dioxins linger in the ecosystem for a very long time, and travel far up the food chain. Indeed, researchers have found trace amounts of dioxin in human breast milk, potentially threatening the health of human babies.

Multiple grassroots organizations of consumers have spoken out about the hazards of PVC plastic.  These organizations include the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, the Grassroots Recycling Network, Greenpeace, and even include a feature film on the dangers of PVC plastic, Blue Vinyl.  Each organization has a compendium of resources and information about PVC plastic, and events and actions organized to halt the use of PVC plastic in everyday consumer items.

It is not only environmental or activist groups that have noted the serious dangers of PVC plastic.  Companies and communities across the world have instituted bans and phase-outs of PVC.  Microsoft is phasing out PVC packaging; New York State has a PVC construction pipe restriction law; Johnson & Johnson has eliminated PVC packaging; several carpet companies have ceased the use of PVC in their products; Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works have phased out PVC.  The list of companies goes on, and includes companies are large and diverse as Wal-Mart, Adidas, Daimler Benz, IKEA, Honest Teas, Sony, Apple, and Mattel.  Opposition continues to grow to the use of this incredibly harmful material in our everyday lives.


Conventional shower curtains are often made of PVC vinyl plastic, and can off-gas into the bathroom environment.  Alternative green products are available, and made from other, much safer vinyl plastics including ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA).  These plastics do not contain chloride, and so do not pose the same risks to your health or the environment.

For the consumer looking for a green product to avoid vinyl plastic altogether, the Ty Shower Curtain is another option, produced from #2 HDPE plastic which is not only free of chloride and other PVC byproducts, but is one of the most commonly recycled plastics on the market.  Ty is also machine-washable and significantly more durable than PVC vinyl, meaning it will last longer in your home.

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