Materials With Some ConcernsPosted: March 30, 2015
We do not live in a “perfect” world but in the best circumstances each of us would be trying to push “what is” a bit more towards “the perfect” each day. When it comes to recycling materials, we often have to remind ourselves that [a] we did not cause the original material to exist and [b] keeping it out of the landfill and locked up in a useful application is the better alternative. Therefore, we continue to offer some materials that we wish were more perfect.
What I hope to do with this blog is simply share some of what we know about two material families with those who care the most about environmental issues and the complexities that should be considered. As with all of the materials that we market – it is the responsibility of the professional specifying our materials to determine the suitability of these materials for a particular application. We willingly do our part by being honest with you to the best of our own understanding about the nature of these materials.
One of these materials that we are involved in getting recycled through our business, Yemm & Hart Ltd, is a PVC based material we call Flexisurf. We have this recycled material installed in our own bathroom where it has functioned for years beautifully and because it was “pre-finished” with a sealer on the production line as it was made – it is a dream to keep clean and looking nice.
As we became aware of growing concerns about PVC in general, we temporarily discontinued actively marketing Flexisurf but we would still fill orders for it with disclosure about our own concerns. As we worked through our personal feelings about being involved with PVC, we realized the point I made above. We did NOT cause it to exist and we do keep it out of the landfill where it could possibly breakdown over time and might affect the environment in some manner.
Why is PVC desirable ? PVC is strong, resistant to oil and chemicals, sunlight, weathering and is also flame resistant. PVC is all around us because it is an incredibly versatile material. Found as bottles, packaging, toys, construction materials, bedding, clothing, piping, wire coatings, imitation leather, furnishings and more places PVC third in both global plastic output and consumption. Because 57% of PVC’s mass is chlorine less petroleum is required for its manufacture than many other polymers.
What are some of the concerns about PVC generally ? Oil and chlorine are NOT what most people could call “green” substances. Their extraction, refining and by-products all pose serious concerns. One such issue of concern in its initial production is the creation of dioxin (and dioxin could also be released if the material is incinerated). Dioxin is one of the deadliest man-made poisons and it is a cumulative toxin. It stays in the body for a long time and can concentrate in food chains at the highest levels.
Another issue that has been identified with PVC is the use phthalates added to make it flexible. It’s often reported that no other plastic presents such a direct environmental and human health threat as PVC does.
So it really is the manufacture of PVC to begin with that is the issue of most concern. Recycled into the sheet form that we sell it as is NOT the real concern. Why ? It’s highly stable and not likely to biodegrade. Items made from PVC will retain their form for decades and the breakdown that does occur is into smaller and smaller pieces.
Recycling PVC is difficult and dangerous and requires special equipment to make its reprocessing safe for the employees of the facility and to prevent any emissions from entering the atmosphere. That is why only 1% of all the PVC created is ever recycled. It is likely your local recycling center will NOT even accept #3 (PVC) plastics from you.
Rubber is another material that we are involved in recycling through our business. We call our recycled rubber material Tire Veneer (for obvious reasons). Recently a few reasons for concern regarding rubber have come to my attention. I already knew from local history that making piles of tires usually culminates in tires burning and sending lots of smoke up into the air. Our Missouri Dept of Natural Resources won’t allow that practice any longer. When we are working at cleaning trash out of waterways for our state Stream Team organization, we are given financial assistance to defray the cost of properly disposing of the numerous tires that many people seem to think nothing of dumping into ditches, on back roads or into our streams and rivers.
Recently, some concerns have been expressed about the use of crumb rubber (tires recycled by grinding them up into crumbs) in applications where children will be playing. On the positive side the resilience and cushioning ability of the material had been the reason it was specified to benefit from its ability to help prevent injuries. The crumb rubber form of the recycled rubber material has been used for athletic fields, as garden mulch and in children’s playgrounds.
As with PVC, there is more concern related to manufacturing issues than with subsequent use of the reclaimed material. Tire crumbs do contain volatile organic hydrocarbons (VOCs) with carcinogenic potential. Evidence of VOCs in crumb rubber has been extracted under laboratory conditions. Health reports from workers in the rubber fabrication industry and also within the rubber reclamation industry describe the presence of VOCs and some toxic elements that can become airborne. Studies at some tire reclamation sites have reported leaching of similar chemicals into the ground water. Occupational studies document potential health effects ranging from skin, eye, and respiratory irritation to implication in the origination of three forms of cancer.
Studies have been conducted that resulted in some recommendations that the use of reclaimed crumb rubber from tires should be limited when related to human exposure in outdoor applications. The summertime heating of the material could amplify the release of VOCs from crumb rubber installations. And there are advisories against using crumb rubber for mulch when growing nursery food plants.
What about applications for recycled rubber in sheet form flooring ? I sincerely appreciated the response of Cynthia Phakos of Koffka Phakos Design in Los Angeles CA on the US Green Building Council’s website (link in the Information Resources section at the end of this blog). She said –
 Recycled rubber flooring is very green as it diverts used products from the landfill, and is a durable, renewable material.
 There can be off-gassing of VOCs which could be harmful if one has sensitivities. These odors will dissipate over time into the atmosphere.
Her support for that application did note that various manufacturers’ products can vary in their environmental and health impacts and that some testing of rubber flooring material in a basement installation has proven it to be an acceptable use. She is correct in noting that “colored granules” are there for aesthetic purposes and the that highest recycled content would be in the solid Black variety. It is also noted that recycled rubber flooring has a longer life (approx 20 yrs) than vinyl or carpet products.
We find recycled rubber sheeting useful as a weed barrier and to soften concrete steps. We have also upholstered a hard plastic chair and drum table, both with good results.
Life is full of complexities and trade-offs. We feel that both Flexisurf and Tire Veneer are excellent materials for their durability and ease of maintenance. And of course, we are totally committed to bringing you recycled content with ALL of our materials.
~ Information Resources
“PVC plastic’s environmental impact” posted at Green Living Tips on Jan 4, 2010 – http://www.greenlivingtips.com/articles/pvc-and-the-environment.html
“Artificial Turf: Exposures to Ground Up Rubber Tires – Athletic Fields, Playgrounds, Garden Mulch” posted at Environment and Human Health Inc – http://www.ehhi.org/reports/turf/
“Is recycled rubber flooring a green and healthy choice? We’re considering it for a basement living space.” at US Green Building Council’s “Green Home Guide” – http://greenhomeguide.com/askapro/question/is-recycled-rubber-flooring-a-green-and-healthy-choice-we-re-considering-it-for-a-basement-living-space
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer