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.

GREEN DEPOT SOLUTIONS

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.

Virginia Young and Janie Lowe, founders of YOLO Colorhouse.

They say that if you want to change the world, start with yourself–and that way of thinking has led to the creation of many a green business. Portland-based visual artists Virginia Young and Janie Lowe certainly took it to heart: When they saw a need for house paint that wouldn’t give off toxic fumes, they simply went out and started their own line.

The two had just moved from NYC to Portland to have a simpler life, more access to nature and more time for their art, when they started a painting business together to pay the bills. Using their experience as artists, they soon created their own range of set colors to make it easier for their customers to choose colors for their homes.

But as time passed, they noticed that nearly every work day ended with sore throats, headaches and bad moods. They suspected it was the paint’s fault, so they looked into the ingredients of normal, water-based latex paint and discovered the wide range of toxic chemicals it contains—many of which are known to cause the exact health problems they were experiencing.

They began working on their own line of zero-VOC paints right away, starting with simple formulas of clay and rice paste, which turned out to be both unpredictable and too costly. So they moved on to working with chemists to produce paints that offered the price point and performance they and their customers needed, but without any of the toxic chemicals found in traditional paints. They managed to formulate a range of paints without carcinogens, phthalates, formaldehiyde, VOCs, or air pollutants of any kind, and thus YOLO (from YOung and LOwe) Colorhouse was born. They now offer over 125 colors in 4 lines–for interiors, exterior work, kids’ rooms and general use.

Along with its generous selection of other low- and zero-VOC paints, Green Depot carries the entire YOLO Colorhouse line.

by flickr user tambako the jaguar

As tightly as we might insulate our homes – filling every nook with environmentally-friendly fill insulation, and caulking every crack and draft – windows are still a major drain on heating and energy bills.

The R-value is the standard unit of how insulating a construction material is.  Conventional fiberglass battens typically have an R-Value of 10.9; some more-efficient green insulations can have R-Values up to 13.  An average glass window has an R-value of one, meaning that a significant amount of energy can pass through a standard window.  Researchers have determined that windows in the U.S. consume about a third of a building’s heating and cooling energy – roughly 4.1 quadrillion BTU of energy.

So, upgrading windows to super-insulated ones presents an opportunity to substantially reduce energy-consumption and lower the cost of heating and cooling a home.

Most LEED-certified buildings use insulated glass.  These are windows with two or three panes stacked in the frame.  The space between panes traps air and significantly increases their efficiency, sometimes providing an R-value rating of two or three.  The most efficient standard insulated glass windows have argon or krypton gas between the panes.

The most efficient type of insulated windows are vacuum glass panels under development by Guardian Industries, and expected to arrive on the market by the end of 2010.  These work on the same physical principle as a thermos bottle – by creating a vacuum between panes of glass, energy cannot transfer through by convection or conduction.  The panes are then coated with a material that reduces radiative heat transfer, providing an R-value of up to R-13. That means a vacuum-glazed window is as insulating as a brick wall, and can help add thermal energy to a house, instead of leaking it – sort of like a garden greenhouse.

Sometimes it seems like every day that we learn about some new thing to be afraid of in our homes—items we thought couldn’t be more innocent, like baby bottles, turn out to be made of toxic materials. Fortunately, though, it’s not that hard to find healthy and eco-friendly alternatives to those that aren’t so friendly. Eco-labels can be a huge help, if you know what you’re looking for. We wrote about a few of the most highly regarded ones to keep an eye out for here, and here’s one more: CRI Green Label Plus. CRI is the Carpet and Rug Institute, and Green Label Plus is their voluntary certification for sustainable carpeting.

Many brands of commercial and residential carpeting produced in recent decades have been proven to off-gas VOCs–not only when new, but sometimes as many as 12 years(!) after installation. Among the chemicals found to be emitted from some of the most popular brands are styrene, 4-PC and formaldehyde, all of which have been associated with respiratory and neurological damage at high concentrations. Many carpet manufacturers have also been called to task for the short life cycle of their products, and their inability to be recycled—and companies like Shaw have taken huge steps to make their carpeting work cradle-to-cradle, rather than just cradle-to-grave.

In order to address their products’ VOC issues, a number of manufacturers have also stepped up to the plate by starting to make safer, non-polluting carpeting available at competitive prices. Green Label Plus is a testing program that checks total VOC emissions and individual chemical concentrations for carpet brands that voluntarily register for evaluation. Only carpeting that emits either no VOC or levels low enough that they don’t threaten indoor air quality get to carry the Green Label Plus seal, above. So the next time you’re out looking for something soft to go under your naked tootsies, you can let the Green Seal Plus symbol help you choose something that’s healthy for both you and the environment.

Among the many other green products we carry, Green Depot offers a range of Green Label Plus-certified carpeting options, in materials ranging from New Zealand wool to jute and coir.

More On Greenwashing

October 26th, 2010 | Posted by cramcharran in Environment | Green Products - (0 Comments)

We wrote a couple weeks ago about greenwashing (the troublesome practice of marketing a product as “green,” when it may not be, to burnish its image)  here.

You can read more about greenwashing, and the troubling results of a market survey carried out by TerraChoice, an independent reviewer of green claims, in this highly informative article from Gwendolyn Bounds in today’s Wall Street Journal.

In 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established the Design for the Environment (DfE) partnership program.  The program was created to achieve an end: to develop partnerships in the private sector and industry, with environmental groups, and with academia to reduce environmental and health risks associated with chemical pollutants found in common household products and commercial and industrial practices.

Design for the Environment’s work is significant.  Its mission is to test the safety of both traditional and alternative chemicals in a whole range of processes, industries, and products.  And, according to the DfE’s website, the program has been something of a huge success – reducing the use of “chemicals of concern” by hundreds of millions of pounds every year.

To obtain a Design for the Environment seal of approval, the EPA must first vet products according to relatively stringent guidelines and an arduous scientific review.   These guidelines take into consideration human health concerns, environmental impacts, and the performance and cost of traditional and alternative technologies.  Determining whether or not a chemical used for a product is safe(er) for people and the earth is a long process, conducted by the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT), and organization that has been testing an analyzing chemicals for more than 30 years – so their expertise is substantial.

The OPPT first uncovers masked chemicals of concern – that is, scientists determine if environmentally-hazardous chemicals appear less harmful because they are diluted with water or other less-toxic chemicals.  If the chemical’s effects on the environment and people is not known, they study the chemical structure of the compound to understand its potential effects.  The DfE program then searches for negative interactions between chemical combinations – individual substances on their own may not be toxic, but in combination can be deadly.  Fragrances and dyes are then screened to ensure they will not pose any adverse health effects, including carcinogenic and environmentally-toxic compounds.  Lastly, the product is screened to see if any safer substitutes are commercially available, and economically-feasible for mass production.

There are over 2,000 Design for the Environment-approved products available on the market, with an easy-to-identify seal in place to allow the consumer to quickly and easily identify which products are safest for their health and the environment.  Considering that there are over 60,000 commerically-used chemicals, many of which have not passed the guidelines set forth by the Design for the Environment, seeing a DfE seal on a product really means something – not only that the product is safe, but that the company that produced the product put time, energy, and resources into making it the safest it could be.  This, of course, speaks to the ethical philosophy of the company producing the product.

Green Depot Solutions: Any green product with the EPA’s Design for the Environment seal is sure to be a sound and safe product, and Green Depot in particular produces an in-house line of DfE-approved cleaners and detergents produced locally in the New York City metropolitan area, and with a refilling station located at our flagship store on the Bowery, along with a full range of other green products and sustainable building materials.