The problem with plastic

Plastic is used for everything from building materials through drinking bottles to medical disposables. PVC (recycling type 3 plastic) has been used in pipes and cables, food wrapping and retail packaging, credit cards and car upholstery. In fashion it’s created imitation leathers and shiny waterproof fabrics for everything from saucy fetish wear to homely shopping bags.

Once the most common plastic, polyvinyl chloride is durable, cheap, and workable, and, when softened with plasticisers, can replace rubber or leather. But producing PVC releases more waste chlorine than any other plastic, and toxic heavy metal stabilisers and phthalates are often used. Most worryingly, it generates frighteningly resilient dioxins, which can cause developmental and reproductive problems and damage the immune system. After use it releases more dioxins and toxic organochlorines whether burned or buried. Dioxins find their way into the food chain via soil and water, and have even been found in the tissues of polar bears.

First to attract negative attention were the pthalates traditionally used to soften PVC, which can leak from the finished product and have been linked to human cancer, kidney damage and hormone disruption, particularly where ingested, for example from babies’ teething toys. Six low-molecular-weight phthalates are now banned from all children’s toys in Europe, the US, Japan, Mexico and Argentina. Yet ten years on, even the EU, now moving toward completely banning all six, is still considering industry objections, while the international campaign to remove pthalates from medical disposables such as IV bags is comparatively recent.

Europe alone produces 850k tonnes of phthalate plasticisers annually. And if their days seem numbered in Europe, they’re still unregulated in many developing countries. China pragmatically produces both toxic and pthalate-free toys for different markets.

Meanwhile, thanks in part to a long campaign by Greenpeace, governments are working toward eliminating polluting PVC altogether, with the EU expected to implement the first legal ban. Eventually. Sweden, first to propose restrictions in 1995, has still not completely banned PVC.  In the absence of national laws, many communities are acting locally. PVC in buildings, linked to asthma, is banned by various local authorities. Spain now has more than 60 PVC-free cities,  and there are various measures in place in German and American communities.

The most conspicuously wasteful use of PVC is in ephemeral packaging. Combined with concerns about phthalates and lead or cadmium in food wrapping, this has led to bans in Canada, Spain, South Korea and the Czech Republic, and restrictions on food use in some US communities. Many supermarket chains are implementing their own bans.

Companies, unhampered by slow legal processes, are best placed to respond to consumer concerns. Scandinavian companies LEGO and IKEA were among the first to ban PVC from their supply chains in 2003.

Can’t we just recycle it?

PVC might eventually be made 100% recyclable, but proponents stress reduced water and energy usage and lower CO2 emissions relative to new PVC, as if it were a benign but limited resource. More dioxins are released every time it’s processed, and while Europe recycled 440,000 tonnes of PVC in 2013 25-50% new PVC was added to make it useable.

While PVC ‘s now less common internationally than safer, easier to recycle polyurethane (PU) and Polyethylene (PET, HDPE), production could still exceed 40 million tonnes by 2016. Where there are safer, greener alternatives available even within the current range of petrochemical-based plastics, why persist with it at all?

Cleaner recycling

Responding to concerns about both conspicuously wasteful PVC packaging and the danger of pthalate ingestion, water bottling companies like Perrier and Evian have now switched to PET, which is also, happily, easier to recycle cleanly, a  fact which has been embraced by greener fashion designers.

Georgio Armani used Newlife polyester, a mechanically recycled PET luxury fabric, to create the gown Livia Firth wore to the 2012 Golden Globe Awards. The Legend of Hercules star Kellan Lutz  wore a NewLife  tuxedo, designed by Jomnarn Dul of New Zealand’s H Brothers for Red Carpet, Green Dress, at last year’s Oscars. Similar fabrics were used in recent collections by Weekend Max Mara.

Moncler, TopShop, and Timberland are all enthusiastically embracing Return Textiles Corporation‘s Bionic Yarn, which is made by wrapping organic cotton  around a core of recycled PET and can be woven into a tough, quick-drying canvas ideal for both hardwearing garments like jeans and tough footwear like high-tops.

So, is my handbag toxic?

The earliest fashion brands to begin phasing out PVC include Adidas, Nike and H&M. Meanwhile, high-end brands like Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Marc Jacobs and Kenzo (all owned by LMVH), Burberry, Calvin Klein and Harrods’ own-label still use PVC, with no published plans to change. These brands’ handbag ranges, for example, feature both vinyl fabric and cotton canvas coated with PVC for a waterproof, leather-like sheen.

But, even in the foot-dragging luxury market, the tide is turning. Kering (brand owner of Gucci, YSL, Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen) took a stand in 2013, and is working toward making all its collections PVC-free by next year. Gucci’s new GG Supreme and GG Plus waterproofed canvas handbags are made by what they describe as an earth-conscious process.

Check labels and published company policies, and look out for PVC-free brands such as Freedom of Animals, who make their luxurious faux-leather from part-recycled polyurethane and cotton, or Engage Green, who produce funky practical polyester bags from used PET.

Natural Materials

There are also plenty of alternatives to vinyl in nature. Rubber, replaced by PVC in many contexts, is still available, and scientists have developed biodegradable plastics from everything from cassava to pineapple or palm leaves. We’ve also covered a whole range of imaginative shoe and handbag fabrics in  ‘Can we do better than vegan leather?‘.

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