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What's the Deal With PVC? How the Popular Plastic Affects Human Health and the Planet

PVC is a buzzy subject. Learn what it is, the many uses of PVC, how it impacts human health and the environment, and eco-friendly alternatives.

is pvc bad for the environment
Written by
Riley Baker
PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is one of the most widely used plastics in the world. Its unique combination of properties makes it versatile and useful in fashion,
children's products
, home goods, and beyond. However, it's also a controversial material due to its environmental impact during production, use, and disposal, as well as the potential health risks associated with exposure to certain chemicals used in its production.
If you've been curious about the ins and outs of PVC—from what it is to what exactly it does to the planet—you're in luck.
Alden Wicker
, an award-winning journalist and the author of the forthcoming book
To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick
, answers all your questions in a recent episode of
Good Together

What Is PVC?

Polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC, is considered one of the most toxic types of plastic. It's harmful throughout its entire life cycle—from production to use to end of life—and has been shown to affect both human health and the environment.
"It was invented in 1926, and its main ingredient is vinyl chloride. If that sounds familiar, it's because that's the ingredient that was in the
Ohio train derailment
. It's the chemical that they released in this big black plume," Wicker says. "You take vinyl chloride, you add a solvent, and then you create this plastic that's used in all sorts of things. If it's plastic and it's super cheap, it could be PVC."
You're probably thinking, I don't have PVC in my home. But the truth is it's everywhere. "It's actually one of the most—if not the most—toxic plastic that's present in so many different consumer products, including children's products," Wicker says.

The Many Uses of PVC

PVS is commonly used in many different industries. In the fashion industry, it's popular in vegan products due to its ability to mimic leather, like bags and jackets. It's also commonly used to create raincoats, boots, and other waterproof clothing, as well as shiny items.
PVC is also used to make children's toys—particularly inflatables and flexible toys, such as dolls and action figures—due to how durable and affordable it is. You'll find it in baby items too, like teething rings, bath toys (like rubber ducks), and squishy plastic baby books.
That's not all, though. PVC is a popular material in other common items around your home too: electrical cables, shower curtains,
yoga mats
, clear shoes, tablecloths, and more.

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Why Is PVC Harmful to Human Health and the Environment?

According to Wicker, a plasticizer is added to PVC to ensure it's not brittle. "That plasticizer is usually phthalates," she says. "Phthalates violate our endocrine disruptors, meaning they mess with your hormones. And endocrine disruptors are really nasty chemicals."
Wicker says with endocrine disrupters, it only takes a tiny bit—"I'm talking a drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool"—to start affecting the systems in your body that are controlled by hormones.
Past research
has found phthalates are "detrimental to the reproductive, neurological, and developmental systems of humans from multiple exposure pathways." The study also stated that "children are at a higher level of exposure and more vulnerable to phthalates."
You may have seen warning labels on some of the products you've added to your cart while shopping online. That's California's Proposition 65, which was created to ensure consumers are informed and warned about potential exposure to certain chemicals before purchasing a product.
Six phthalates
are on California's Proposition 65 list "because they can cause birth defects or other reproductive harm and/or cancer."
But how do these chemicals get into your body? "One is that it can off-gas. Off-gassing is when something releases volatile organic compounds, VOCs, into the air, and then you're breathing them in," she says. "Or if you're wearing plastic fashion and getting all sweaty, your sweat can draw whatever is in that fashion out. And then it gets into your skin and it can get into your bloodstream."
When it comes to the planet, PVC is harmful to the environment for several reasons. Its manufacturing process involves the use of non-renewable resources and releases toxic chemicals into the environment. It's also not easy to dispose of at the end of its life, and improper disposal can lead to long-term environmental pollution. When PVC products are incinerated, they release toxic pollutants that can have detrimental effects on air quality and human health.

Eco-Friendly Alternatives to PVC

Conscious consumers can avoid PVC while shopping by first being more mindful of product labels and packaging. Look for products that state they're PVC-free or made from alternative materials. Many eco-conscious brands and retailers are now offering PVC-free options in various categories, such as clothing, toys, household goods, and building materials.
In the realm of fashion, faux leather products often rely on PVC for their production. However, there are
alternatives available
, like cactus leather and
apple leather
. There's now even an option made from
coffee pulp
By being a little more mindful when shopping, you can steer clear of PVC and find options that are better for your health and the planet.