Construction Materials – A Social Justice Issue
Having knowledge and transparency in respect of the materials we incorporate into our buildings remains a significant global social justice issue, as much as it is one of health and wellbeing. As ILFI Declare label asks, “where does a product come from, how is it used and what happens at end of its life” are vital questions in todays built environment.
This aspect, social justice in sustainability, was the theme of my presentation (*) at Green Build Europe 2019 in Amsterdam last week that mentioned the social impact of PVC and the report from HBN launched the same day.
PVC and Chlor-alkali
On the 19th March, HBN released part two of their investigative research into PVC and chlor-alkali looking at the Asia market (Part One Covered USA and EU). This was also the focus for their webinar on 27th March. Having transparency on PVC production is vital, from both the social justice and wellbeing perspectives, if we are to create buildings that are socially justice, ecological sound and culturally rich.
Healthy Buildings Network Vision: All people and the planet thrive when the environment is free of toxic chemicals
Moving Forward. While environmentalists, building owners, architects and designers, and building-product manufacturers differ in their opinions on avoiding PVC, there is widespread and growing support for the elimination of pollution from the supply chain of PVC and of other chlorine-based products. A public global inventory of chlorine and PVCproducers is a necessary first step for taking action.HBN is providing this report, and accompanying online materials, spreadsheets, and map, as full open-accesscontent. This data can help manufacturers to avoid chemicals derived from toxic technologies, and scientists to fill gaps in understanding the material flow of pollutants like mercury, PFAS, and carbon tetrachloride.
A worrying aspect that I take away from these reports is the use of mercury, asbestos and coal in the production of chlorine and its widespread use within PVC production.
PVC is the most common plastic used in building materials, by far. With the resources
developed by HBN, users can trace PVC production sites back to the source of chlorine,
understand the technologies (those that use mercury, asbestos and/or PFAS), and make informed decisions about the materials used in their products. HBN’s Chlorine and Building
Materials initiative also details the ties between chlorine production and other plastic building
products, including epoxy, polyurethane, and polycarbonate.
An increasing proportion of PVC is sourced from massive new plants in the coal mining region of interior China. The highest concentration of these plants is in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. These government owned plants consume local coal that is inexpensive due to its abundance and low labor costs. They use toxic mercury catalysts to turn coke and chlorine into VCM for the PVC.
These plants, including three of the world’s largest, are located near internment centers into which the Chinese government is forcing Uyghurs to undergo so-called “re-education.” Some of the PVC flooring made in this region is entering the building and construction market. There are many other social justice issues involved in the industrial geography of the chlor-alkali and PVC industries, but this is potentially the most dire. This raises some questions, in particular:
Is forced labor involved in the mining of coal, the building, the operation, and the handling of waste, from these massive new coal-to-PVC plants?
Has the industry taken any steps to ensure that PVC used in building and construction does not come from entities (including government agencies and related private investors) that violate human rights?
The HBN Report can be downloaded and read here: Chlorine and Building Materials: A Global Inventory of Production Technologies and Markets. Phase 2: Asia. (with Spreadsheets, maps, and reports, all of which are free to use with attribution) Part One is also available from the same pages.
Many thanks to Jim Vallette, report author and President Material Research, L3C for insights on China and related social issues.
GreenBuild Europe Presentation
(*) The GreenBuild Europe presentation was in conjunction with Emmanuel Pauwels Green Living Projects and Paola Moschini Macro Design Studio who presented on their experience of attaining the ILFI JUST Label (at present the only two organisations Europe)