Does Vinyl Follow LEED?

A report on how polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is viewed by the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design® (LEED®) program has been made public—and the results are largely encouraging for those who believe in the material’s myriad advantages and applications.

Since November 2002, USGBC’s Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee (TSAC) PVC Task Group has researched the scientific basis for adding a LEED credit to its rating system for rewarding construction projects that do not use vinyl. However, the Assessment of Technical Basis for a PVC-related Materials Credit in LEED draft, made available for review from December 17, 2004 to February 15, 2005, stated:

Using current data for life-cycle analysis [LCA] and risk assessment, our analysis of the chosen building material alternatives shows that PVC does not emerge as a clear winner or loser. In other words, the available evidence does not support a conclusion that PVC is consistently worse than alternative materials on a life-cycle environmental and health basis… Therefore, the current body of knowledge as analyzed in this report in Section 3 as it relates to the Task Group’s charge from TSAC does not support a credit in the LEED rating system for eliminating PVC or any particular material.

While most all professionals in the built environment support LEED’s principal goals of sustainable construction and design, many in the plastics industry still see a built-in bias against synthetic materials when the program’s Materials and Resources (MR) credits are determined. Aspects of green building in which vinyl can be beneficial—such as durability and low-maintenance during the use-phase of a building—are not considered. Many have called for a re-evaluation of existing LEED MR credits, using an LCA approach to realistically evaluate optimal materials in different situations.

It is important to put the current LEED vinyl debate into context. While the vinyl production process can yield a carcinogenic gas, vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), it is uncertain how much of this is actually emitted to the environment. In the process, released VCM is transformed into solid PVC—never again reverting to its gaseous state. PVC is a stable compound and typically does not decompose in the waste stream.

With the draft-review period over, TSAC will now consider the information provided through this public comment system, and produce its final report later this year. For now, it should be clear—when something stacks up evenly with other building materials through objective analysis, it should be given equal value in LEED’s rating system.