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Does LEED v4 Ban PVC?

Does LEED v4 ban PVC? Let's look at the details of the new rating system.
August 27, 2013

Photo – InterfaceFLOR
The vinyl industry has been vocally opposed to the new LEED v4 MR credits, even going so far as to characterize MRc4 Option 2 as a ban on PVC. The Vinyl Insitute, which represents PVC polymer makers, warned BuildingGreen (publishers of LEEDuser) in an email that LEED v4 “can actually lead architects and designers to make bad decisions in order to secure credits so they can market their buildings.”

Does LEED v4 ban PVC? Let's look at the details of the new rating system. (And check out our new webcast, which explores this and related issues in detail.)

LEED-NC v4 does not ban any building materials

It’s important to note that LEED-NC v4 does not actually ban any building materials. MRc4 is optional, and only 25% of permanently installed products have to meet the criteria in order to achieve Option 2—but we still wondered if a product containing PVC could still contribute to MRc4. The answer is decidedly “yes.”

PVC is on the banned list in Cradle to Cradle (C2C), but any product with an HPD or a manufacturer inventory can contribute to Option 1: as long as the ingredients are disclosed, it doesn’t matter what they are. Contributing to Option 2 would certainly be more challenging, particularly for products that include certain phthalates (plasticizers that make PVC flexible), but it’s still quite doable.

Some complications for PVC, but no dealbreakers

A full GreenScreen assessment, which would value a PVC product at 150% of its cost under the MRc4 requirements, would disqualify PVC because its life cycle begins and ends with Benchmark 1 hazards,  Clean Production Action’s Lauren Heine told us. However, the List Translator, which would value a product at 100% of cost, doesn’t take the whole life cycle into account, so materials that don’t have toxic components in their use phase won’t have a problem passing through this screening process. Although PVC often contains additives like phthalates and even heavy metals like lead that are likely to be on red lists, “the PVC molecule itself is pretty benign” and doesn’t appear in the List Translator, Heine said.

PVC also doesn’t show up on either of the relevant REACH lists, so products that meet those criteria can also count for Option 2, even in U.S. projects.

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The bottom line? There are multiple pathways for PVC-containing products to contribute to maximum points in this credit.

It's optional, anyway

That's right—the key word here is "credit." MRc4 is optional, and many projects might scoff at the 1–2 points it offers as reward for a heap of documentation. Plenty of projects just won't bother.

For those projects that do pursue MRc4, credit achievement is based on meeting the credit criteria for just a portion of products on the job (20 products for Option 1, or 25% of total product cost for Option 2), so it's always possible to have non-compliant products on the project that don't contribute to meeting those thresholds.

The Vinyl Institute makes its case

When I pressed him on how MRc4 could act as a ban on PVC, Dick Doyle, president of the Vinyl Institute, told me that “people are going to go for the easiest thing” and that “they will cut to the chase with C2C.” (I'm not sure that the inventors of C2C—William McDonough and Michael Braungart—whose Platinum certification criteria have never been approached, would agree.) Doyle noted the influence that LEED has with government agencies and worried that health advocates “are going to be very active in helping the community know that you have many better options than PVC.”

Asked for an example of how LEED v4 could lead an architect to make a bad choice for a building, Doyle told me that designers could be forced to look for alternatives to PVC roofing, which is generally recognized as durable. However, non-PVC options such as TPO, EPDM, and standing-seam metal are also very durable, as we have reviewed in EBN. (Not to say that those materials provide a free ride in terms of avoiding toxic chemicals, as discussed in EBN.)

What do you think?

Did we miss something here? Do see see LEED v4 as being unfair on PVC or any other material? (Venturi-type flow-through vacuum generators or aspirators—this is not about you!)

Note: BuildingGreen's managing editor Paula Melton contributed to this post. For more reporting by Paula, see Chemical Industry Attacks LEED: We Check the Facts.

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Comments

September 23, 2013 - 1:02 pm

Tristan, thank you for rationally analyzing the claims made by the PVC industry, and showing that - surprise, surprise - their statements are loaded with inaccuracy and written to intentionally mislead the design community. It is only through the work of the USGBC and EBN/leed user that designers, builders and end users can recognize that there is a larger impact from building materials than what were are told by product manufacturers. One doesn't have to look very hard to find substantive research documenting the human health and eco-toxicity impact of PVC throughout its life cycle.

In summary, very good post!

September 23, 2013 - 9:59 am

Tristan,

Well said. What I got out of this is:

1. Not all PVCs are equal. We need to know more about the products we are using.

2. We need to weigh our options. LEED was never intended to be prescriptive. Its best use is when it is leveraged as a way to weigh our design, purchasing and operational decisions and to help, by providing a grading system, lead you to better ones.

August 27, 2013 - 4:26 pm

This is a very helpful and detailed article. A LEED rating system can never ban something for all projects via a *credit*; it would have to be banned via a *prerequisite*, as discussed in the subsection titled 'Vinyl Institute makes its case.'

It's poor form to 'cry wolf' on this because people won't take the Vinyl nstitute seriously when/if they critique other rating systems that do ban PVC.

For example, I believe the Living Building Challenge bans 100%-PVC products. There is an exception for certain products made up of a small component of PVC. http://living-future.org/node/214/#red footnotes

August 1, 2016 - 4:56 pm

stumbled on this old string while looking for something else on this site. Here's the rest of the fool's errand story - the base polymers were polypropylene and butadiene ( clean polymers, but flammable ). The flame retardant was everything you wanted; hal free, non brominated, no antimony. We achieved class A rating for smoke and fire when adhered to concrete. When the E 84 test was done adhered to gypsum board, the fire separated the wallcovering, the fire got in between resulting in an unacceptable class B rating.

So the industry has tacitly chosen PVC because of the class A rating. Outgassing of mystery ingredients with a class A is better than no outgassing and a class B flame and smoke spread.

February 13, 2014 - 8:58 am

"Here's a question: Does LEED discourage development of alternatives to products on the red list ?"

LEED is designed to do the exact opposite of that. The point is to drive the market toward more sustainable materials and design choices.

February 12, 2014 - 4:08 pm

Thanks. Plastics has so many subspecies of resins and processes.

The context of other polymers was just a pinky thumbnail. If a common criticism of commodity simple plastics is that they don't break down, why is there a concern about leaching ?

History lessons do help keep the info straight.
Here's one from the moldy oldy video vault:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vq9S6FMSAv8

If the past is prologue, economic realities make for low demand for alternatives to undesirable materials. I could make the same plastic film from biobased sources, but the market does not want to pay up. PVC is still the default choice for wallcovering in Europe.

Here's a decision guide I put together
http://info.brentwoodplastics.com/bioplastics-or-conventional-plastics?&...

Here's a question: Does LEED discourage development of alternatives to products on the red list ?

February 7, 2014 - 9:36 am

Joel, I think you would enjoy the February issue of Environmental Building News on our sister site, BuildingGreen.com. The lead article is an analysis of the toxicity of PVC over its life cycle, contextualized with discussions of other plastics. There is also a product review of biobased Xorel, the new gold standard in non-PVC wallcoverings.

http://www.buildinggreen.com/articles/IssueTOC.cfm?Volume=23&Issue=2

February 6, 2014 - 6:41 pm

If I offended you unintentionally with "the greens" I apologize. I heard this term often at Greenbuild without any derogatory connotation.

The basic plastic is also used in prolonged dermal contact and has been through 4 biotoxicity tests. It does not have any plasticizers, so this is a non-starter.

I was fortunate enough to outgrow asthma, so I'm not keen on adding any triggers or bioaccumulative toxins either.

To make the plastic comply with E 84, one has to extrude FR with the base polymer taking a back seat. The plastic is the tail and the FR is the dog because these monomers are much more highly flammable than PVC.
Not all plastic is PVC. Not all PVC contains the nasty stuff either.

Thanks for the lead on clay. I'm open to suggestions from anywhere at this point.

All we can do is find the least objectionable mix and disclose it in the HPD. If it's not acceptable, we back up 10 and punt.

February 6, 2014 - 5:04 pm

Thanks, Joel. That answers many questions.

I understand that Carnegie uses a clay-based flame retardant on its TPO wallcoverings, so something like that could be worth looking into.

Many of the design professionals you are calling "the greens" hesitate to use persistent, bioaccumulative toxic flame retardants in interior products. These chemicals don't bond to the plastics and can slough off in dust, exposing building occupants to chemicals that are confirmed or probable carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, reproductive toxicants, asthmagens, or asthma triggers.

Most sensible people (not just "the greens") would certainly hesitate to eat even Kosher food off of plastic that contained such chemicals, if they knew they were there.

I think you might have meant your ingredients would be disclosed in an HPD, not an EPD.

February 6, 2014 - 4:38 pm

The building blocks are common commodity monomers - ethylene & propylene.
These are strung together to make a copolymer of polyethylene / polypropylene. The resin is pure enough that it is FDA and Kosher approved for prolonged and direct food contact. The white pigment is Titanium Dioxide.

There are no plasticizers, softeners, antimicrobials or coatings.

To say meeting the most demanding standards of E 84 with a plastic which is compressed natural gas is a technical hurdle is a huge understatement, especially if the usual FR's are not acceptable to the greens. It may be a fool's errand to try to develop an FR which has no antimony, halogenated, brominated, etc. but we are going to try anyway. ( We are tweaking the FR additive which did pass E 84. ) Whatever turns out to be the least bad choice we will disclose in an EPD.

Hope this covers it. If not, let me know. Thanks for your interest.

January 27, 2014 - 2:18 pm

Joel, I see your site says the wallcovering you're pitching here is "not PVC," but you don't seem to mention what it IS. Can you tell us what material "notPVC" is made of and share the health profile of any plasticizers/softeners, flame retardants, antimicrobials, PFC coatings, or other additives?

October 6, 2013 - 6:30 pm

Thanks for all the info and links. I have a new PVC alternative for wallcoverings and shower curtains which is so clean it is FDA and Kosher approved for prolonged and direct food contact.
http://www.brentwoodplastics.com/notpvc-wallpaper-wallcoverings.html
Turns out the wallcovering manufacturers who pushed me are complacent and will not switch until their hand is forced. Will v4 de facto make this happen in 2015 ? How do I find out where this fits in ? USGBC says it's not about the points, but architects and other EBOM types only care about the well defined points. Any help or guidance would be appreciated.