What is PVC?


What is PVC - Its place in Fashion and its impact on the planet.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a thermoplastic that is odourless, solid, brittle, and generally white in colour. It is currently ranked as the third most widely used plastic in the world (behind polyethylene and polypropylene) (1) and is one of the most controversially debated materials regarding its hazardous impacts on the environment and human health.

When was PVC plastic first invented?

PVC was discovered in 1838 by Henri Regnault, but was not commercialized until 1926, when chemist Waldo Semon, discovered a method to plasticize PVC into a soft rubbery material.

It was developed as an alternative to rubber and was used for insulation, pipes, and other applications. In the 1950s, PVC was used to make vinyl records. It was not until the 1960's and 70's that PVC became a popular trend in fashion.

How is PVC made?

PVC is made by reacting chlorine, carbon, and ethylene (a petrol product). The raw materials are essentially, salt and oil. Electrolysis of saltwater produces the chlorine, which is combined with ethylene (obtained from oil) to form vinyl chloride monomer (VCM).

Vinyl Chloride Monomer (VCM) is a colourless compound, and it is estimated that approximately 13 billion kilograms are produced annually. (1) VCM then undergoes a process called polymerisation, which results in a base PVC, to which additives are incorporated to make a customised PVC compound.

How is PVC made? - PVC in the Construction Industry | Watson & Wolfe
PVC is the predominant material of choice in the home construction industry.

Is PVC a plastic?

Yes, PVC is a plastic and an exceptionally durable and long lasting one.

Plastics such as PVC are cheap and widely used for applications which require durable, long lasting, waterproof, and weather resistant materials.

What are the uses for PVC?

PVC is the predominant material of choice in the home construction industry. Its characteristics make it an ideal replacement or alternative for metal pipes and other applications where corrosion can compromise functionality and longevity.

Other sectors to use PVC include transport, packaging, electrical, electronic, healthcare and of course the fashion industry.

Not all PVC is hard like the piping used in your bathroom or the downpipe on your building. The addition of other chemicals to the base PVC changes its form and the flexible PVC materials you might see used for interiors and fashion are obtained with the addition of phthalates during production.

What are phthalates?

Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which change the way hormones are made and disturbed throughout the body. Phthalates can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled.

Phthalates are not a single chemical, there is a whole family of them, and not all of them behave the same way. Three of them, BBP, DBP, and DEHP, are permanently banned from toys and products intended to help children under 3 sleep, eat, teethe, or suck. (2)

DEHP is the most used phthalate for PVC fashion textiles and although it is unclear how much, it is likely that a little DEHP is transferred by skin contact with plastic clothing or other articles that contain DEHP. (3)

Is PVC Toxic?

Yes, PVC is considered to be toxic when burned or when certain additives, such as lead, are used in its production. It can also release dangerous chemicals into the air when heated. For these reasons, PVC should be handled with care and disposed of properly.

Is PVC harmful to people?

Vinyl chloride which is used to make PVC is a gas with a sweet odour. The gas is highly toxic, flammable, and a known carcinogen.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "vinyl chloride emissions from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), ethylene dichloride (EDC), and vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) production plants cause or contribute to air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to result in an increase in mortality, an increase in serious irreversible illness or incapacitating reversible illnesses.

One reason why PVC is so toxic is that it is often mixed with softening chemicals called plasticizers, the most well-known variety being DEHP. DEHP can leech from the materials, and you can be exposed to it by touching a PVC product, inhaling fumes from a PVC manufacturing plant or landfill, or accidentally swallowing PVC from food packaging or contaminated water (4)

What is the effect of PVC on human health?

PVC can have a negative effect on human health if it is not handled properly. It can release toxic chemicals into the air, which can be inhaled and cause respiratory and other health issues. It can also cause skin irritation or allergic reactions if it comes into contact with the skin.

Vinyl chloride exposure is associated with an increased risk of a rare form of liver cancer (hepatic angiosarcoma), as well as brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukaemia. (5)

What is PVC? | Watson & Wolfe
Examples of PVC Fashion. Photo: ALLISON KAHLER

Is PVC harmful to the environment?

During the process of manufacturing, recycling and disposure, PVC releases pollutants, including dioxins, which are released into the air, land, and water supply.

Dioxins are a group of chemically related compounds that are persistent environmental pollutants (POPs). They are found throughout the world in the environment and accumulate in the food chain, mainly in the fatty tissue of animals. (6)

One of the greatest concerns with PVC is the additives such as plasticizers and metal-based stabilizers which will leach into the soil and irrevocably impact the environment.

Is PVC Biodegradable?

PVC is not biodegradable, but it can be recycled. That said, PVC is exceedingly difficult to recycle, and as a result little of it is collected and processed in recycling facilities. Made from many different formulations composed of various additives, PVC products cannot easily be separated for recycling, which makes breaking vinyl products down into their original components nearly impossible. (7)

A study by the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers (ECVM) demonstrated that PVC can last up to 70 years for some applications. This presents great value for money for the consumer, but once the PVC reaches its end-of-life stage, it does not readily degrade and when it does it gives off toxic materials.

How is PVC used in Fashion?

Plastics have long been used in clothing, particularly in raincoats. It became most popular in clothing during the fashion trends of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Today, PVC still exists in fashion and although most reputable Brands have completely eradicated it from their supply chains, it is still available and can be very well hidden.

You may find PVC being used in clothing, bags, and shoes, which considering all you have read about the possible effect of PVC on human health, we must ask ourselves, why are fashion brands still using this material at all?

PVC is a cheap material, that is mass produced at scale. It is essentially a thin layer of plastic with a fabric covering, and is a popular choice for brands looking to develop attractive and cheap items. According to the Center for Environmental Health accessories such as PVC handbags contain chemicals such as lead and mercury, chemicals which are hazardous to human health.

Textured PVC Fabrics | Watson & Wolfe
PVC can be manufactured to have any texture and it can resemble good quality faux leather.

Is PVC Vegan?

Absolutely, but it is not a viable alternative to leather items you already own. There is little value in swapping one toxic material for one which is much worse.

If you want to swap out your animal leather items, take your time and do your research first. PVC can be manufactured to have different textures, such as pebbling, ostrich and alligator, it is no longer just the shiny Vinyl you might see. In fact, PVC can resemble and feel like high quality faux leather.

Is PVC sustainable?

If you've reached this point in the article, then you have probably made an educated guess already as to whether PVC is sustainable or not. The answer is no, PVC is not considered to be a sustainable material. It is non-biodegradable, meaning it will remain in the environment for a very long time. It can also be difficult to recycle, as it is made from a combination of plastics and chemicals.

Unsure if something you like has PVC in it?


Email the brand and ask. Delay your purchase by a few days and wait for a reply. Then you can make an informed decision. Good brands should disclose this information on their product page or honestly in a reply to you. It is worth noting that Brands who have an ethical and sustainable approach to their design and manufacturing are not likely to be using PVC, but if it does not say, ASK.

For all the reasons you read above, here at Watson & Wolfe we are committed to never using PVC in any of our collections.

(1) wikipedia
(2) Phthalates: Are They Safe? (webmd.com)
(3) Microsoft Word - DEHP_PHS.doc (cdc.gov)
(4) https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/chemicals-and-contaminants/polyvinyl-chloride-pvc
(5) Vinyl Chloride - Cancer-Causing Substances - National Cancer Institute
(6) Dioxins and their effects on human health (who.int)
(7) Ecolife Recycling - How to Recycle PVC (Plastic #3)

Updated 28th Jan 2023

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