The Vinyl window conspiracy: why changing wood windows to vinyl is the worst decision you will ever make
I gotta say my biggest pet peeve is people who flip houses and remove old wood windows and replace them with cheap vinyl windows. First of all they are UGLY. People do not want homes with ugly vinyl nail-in windows. They want homes with charm. And before you talk energy efficiency–let me tell you why that is a big fat lie.
Many people don’t realize that single paned glass only accounts for about 10-20% of a buildings heat-loss and the air lost is lost through leaks not through the glass. The leaks can be fixed with caulking. Wood windows do not need to be replaced. Wood windows will actually last another hundred years or more with some simple care at a cost of about $175 per window. People also don’t realize these windows were made with really high-quality old-growth wood. Luckily there are a lot of people who specialize in rehabbing old wood windows like David Liberty in this article in this Old House: “Their beauty was obscured by aged triple-track storms, so down those came—and in came David Liberty, whose company specializes in rehabilitating old wood windows. David is one of the many people, including show friend and wood repair expert John Stahl, who believe that the strong, tight-grained wood found in old construction makes preserving it a better investment than replacement with today’s softer wood. Properly repaired, claimed David, the Watertown windows would last another hundred years.”
But aside from that vinyl is cheap for a reason. It is beyond toxic and they only last about 10 years. Why would you replace windows that will last another 100 years with a window that will last 10?
These windows are designed for obsolescence.
President Obama’s stimulus package spent 100 billion dollars to improve energy efficiency in buildings and promote renewable energy programs. The package offered a $1,500 tax credit to replace your current windows and doors with energy efficient windows and doors. This was a massive increase from the previous energy tax credit of $200 for qualifying windows and $500 for qualifying doors. The Act also subsidized “qualified” insulated vinyl siding as an energy efficient strategy since siding would increase a building’s “R” value aka insulation value and was a designated qualified Energy Star product. Qualification meant the product was approved by “Energy Star ” (which incidentally has been highly criticized by a Government Accountability Office report citing weaknesses in Energy Star’s product-approval system).
These solutions are not as sensible or as green as they appear and they are backed by a POWERFUL lobby. The vinyl window industry is a 3 billion dollar a year industry according to a 2005 edition of the popular building magazine This Old House. Vinyl siding is the major component of the 12 billion dollar a year siding industry. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact size of the vinyl industry and the amount spent lobbying Congress for vinyl because lobbyists work through various organizations like the Vinyl Institute (which only accounts for a very small portion of the actual money spent lobbying for PVCs), the Chamber of Commerce, various chemical companies that make vinyl like Dow Chemical which spent 8 million dollars a year in 2010 and 2011 to lobby for reduced environmental regulations on plastics, BASF, American Chemistry Council, etc. The total amount is undoubtedly astronomical and explains why vinyl has been embraced as a green building material by the US Green Building Council despite opposition from major environmental groups.
The chemical industry is without a doubt powerful and it has plenty of money to persuade members of Congress and regulatory agencies that its safe. In fact the online WatchDog group AllGov says this about the chemical industries efforts to lobby legislation that would strengthen toxic chemical regulation. “The American Chemistry Council, the chief lobbying arm of the chemical industry, spent $18.4 million lobbying Washington on this and other issues, on top of lobbying by industry giants Dow, BASF, SABIC and ExxonMobil, all of which have tried to get specific chemicals taken off the list.”
Obama’s vinyl-based “green” strategy is loaded with problems for consumers, as great as it is for the vinyl industry’s lobbyists. To start according the Environmental Protection Agency, about 40 percent of annual landfill waste — almost 136 million tons per year – consists of building materials. So Obama’s move encourages people to throw perfectly good building materials into landfills, only to replace them with short-lived vinyl — a material that, the ads for your new vinyl windows won’t tell you, typically lasts only 15 years. (Germany EPA 2003). In a decade and a half, out landfills will be filled up yet again with this generation’s ‘green’ solution.
Our landfills aren’t the only problem. Our health is at stake too. Vinyl contains polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as “PVC”. PVC is an extremely toxic substance shown to cause cancer in animals and suspected as a carcinogen in humans. Experts advise that it should be minimized if not eliminated from indoor environments. Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently did a series on CNN called Toxic America suggesting even a small amount of PVC in the home was dangerous. Where do these toxins end up? Around low income kids and kids of color:
The Center for Health and Environmental Justice says, “PVC chemical plants are often located in or near low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, such as Mossville, Louisiana, making the production of PVC a major environmental justice concern. PVC manufacturing facilities have poisoned workers and fenceline neighbors, polluted the air, contaminated drinking water supplies, and even wiped entire neighborhoods off the map.”
In fact, it’s interesting The Center for Health and Environmental Justice just did an article on New York City passing a law to phase out PVC. The article is titled After Four Years of Delay, NYC Issues Landmark “Green Purchasing” Rules for City Agencies to Reduce Dioxin, One of the Most Toxic Chemicals Known to Science: Environmental, Public Health, Labor Groups Call on Bloomberg Administration to Phase Out Toxic PVC Plastic, a Major Source of Dioxin. It details the recent NYC City Council law that requires the city fully implement a “green purchasing” law 7 years in the making, by phasing out the purchase of toxic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. So why would we have a law phasing out a product because of its environmental toxicity at the same time we are spending billions to subsidize that same product as a green strategy?
The environmental organization Greenpeace has been very outspoken on the dangers of PVC:“The production of PVC and its feedstocks, vinyl chloride monomer and ethylene dichloride, results in the release of hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment each year, mainly in poor, communities of color in the Louisiana and Texas. PVC production is also a large source of dioxin into the environment.” The environmental construction website The Green Building Advisor warns of some of the additional health hazards of vinyl:
“Vinyl’s other major chemical components – EDC and VCM – have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. VCM is classified as a known human carcinogen, and EDC is a probable human carcinogen(EPA.gov). Hazardous by-products are formed throughout the PVC life cycle. At numerous points in the vinyl life cycle, very large quantities of hazardous organochlorine by-products are formed accidentally and released into the environment.”
The Center for Health and Environmental Justice also outlines some of the reasons that PVC is extremely dangerous. “PVC products often contain toxic additives such as phthalates, lead and cadmium. Many of these additives are not chemically bound to the plastic and can migrate out of the product posing potential hazards to consumers”.
Vinyl windows do improve energy efficiency. But they do so by sealing a home’s occupants into air tight chambers. Health-supporting buildings, though, are meant to breathe. When they can’t, potentially toxic indoor air is recirculated to inhabitants, possibly causing a condition called “sick building syndrome” which is exacerbated by the presence of environmental toxins discussed here on the EPA’s website. “From cradle to grave,” cautions the Green Building Advisor, “[vinyl] is the worst choice. The environmental, health, and social equity impacts of vinyl throughout its life cycle – from production to use to disposal – make it the worst plastic for the environment and the antithesis of a green building material.”
Not only does PVC poison the planet. It deceived consumers. Ironically, Obama’s Vinyl-based initiatives give people the impression that they are making positive environmental choices about their building materials – even as they ramp up threats to their neighborhoods and their home environment.
The time has come for us to take aggressive and targeted action to protect our planet. To do so though, we must see through these plastic green’ initiatives. We are part of a fragile eco-system – we must promote real political changes that nurture and protect that system, and not stop with initiatives that provide only great messaging for lobbyists – and health problems for us and our families.