‘Little boxes on the hillside’… And the world piles up with ‘ticky tacky’

There comes a time in every homeowner’s life when they must consider making some painful upgrades.

There comes a time in every homeowner’s life when they must consider making some painful upgrades.

Whether it is windows, flooring, siding or all three, and more, renovating is a huge financial investment that may never pay off.

I am considering upgrades to my own home, even though I know that in terms of both energy efficiency and real-estate value, I will be burning money.

I’d probably be better off plugging up the holes around my windows with tree sap and buying a thousand pairs of alpaca socks.

Thing is, like most homeowners I feel compelled to make my home more beautiful, if not solid and fuel efficient.

My Porter Creek house is about 30 years old.

Although I can’t be certain, I’m pretty sure the gold and white faux marble linoleum underfoot in every bedroom is the original flooring. I’m less certain about the mint green “ticky-tacky” outside.

Vinyl siding is made with PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and I’ve been wondering what I would do with it all if it ever got ripped down in exchange for a more attractive and more sustainable wood siding.

I am not alone.

Three-hundred-billion pounds of PVC plastic has been installed worldwide for construction and other longer-term uses during the last 30 to 40 years and is reaching the end of its useful life.

Now, towns and cities everywhere are facing PVC disposal crises.

Besides siding, PVC is used to make pipelines, wire covering, flooring, window ‘profiles,’ and wallpaper.

As a building material, PVC is cheap, easy to install and easy to replace, which is why it is so prevalent.

Unfortunately, PVC is the worst kind of plastic.

In Greenpeace’s pyramid of plastics, PVC sits at the very top — the leader in terms of hazardous characteristics.

PVC is a dioxin, the worst type of carcinogen; it has is also been linked to diseases affecting the reproductive organs.

Chlorine is a main ingredient.

From its manufacture to its disposal, PVC emits toxic compounds.

During the manufacture of the building block ingredients of PVC (such as vinyl chloride monomer), dioxin and other persistent pollutants are emitted into the air, water and land, which present both acute and chronic health hazards to anyone working in a PVC factory, or living near one.

During use, seemingly innocuous PVC products can leach toxic additives.

For example, with continued contact with water, flooring and vinyl shower curtains can release softeners called phthalates, which have been linked to bronchial problems in children and to liver damage.

When PVC reaches the end of its useful life, it is either landfilled, where it leaches toxic additives or incinerated, again emitting dioxin and heavy metals.

When PVC burns in accidental fires, hydrogen chloride gas and dioxin are formed.

In 1997, a 400-ton stockpile of vinyl siding caught fire at a recycling depot in Hamilton, Ontario, emitting 66 times more dioxins than what the Ontario government deemed safe, and 60 times more lead, a common PVC additive.

PVC in packaging includes disposable bottles (for water, vinegar, etc.), wrapping film, bottles and jars; they also hide in the soft inlays in screwtop lids and caps.

Raingear, toddler cups, software packaging, appliques on T-shirts also contain PVC.

PVC is everywhere. And it is almost impossible to recycle.

Besides the prohibitive costs of transporting huge amounts of discarded vinyl siding, not to mention other PVC products, the varying types of PVC additives makes each product incompatible with the other, which means the additional cost of sorting.

Small amounts are being shredded, however, and compacted.

You may have seen some post-consumer PVC products in playgrounds.

Whenever I go to Haines, Alaska, I take my kids to the giant play structure in the centre of town and I marvel at its fake wood — thick, brown planks made of recycled PVC.

All that I can think as I run my fingers over the wood-like grains of its plastic surface is that this is The Jungle Gym That Will Never Die.

It is a temporary solution, of course.

What happens when, like the mint green vinyl siding on my house, that particular style of play structure grows out of fashion.

What will we do with the recycled PVC?

Meanwhile, cities around the world continue to decorate their “little boxes on the hillside” with toxic “ticky-tacky,” adding fuel to a solid waste crisis for which there appears to be no solution.

Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.

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