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So durable, it's hard to get rid of

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It's the white plastic pipe that carries away the water when you empty the bathtub. Maybe it's in your home's vinyl siding, your wallpaper, or the beachball your son plays with.

The material is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), one of the world's most widely used plastics and, increasingly, one of its most controversial. The chemical properties that give it such flexibility and a long serviceable life also make it an environmental liability when it's produced and later when it's thrown out.

At least, that's what environmentalists claim.

With their prodding, an anti-PVC movement is picking up steam and some high-profile corporations have begun to eliminate it from their production lines. But worldwide production is growing - along with the intensity of the debate.

PVC is "one of the most environmentally hazardous consumer materials ever produced," writes Joe Thornton, a biology professor at the University of Oregon in a briefing paper for the Healthy Building Network, an advocacy group.

"It's true that eventually a lot of vinyl is coming out of service," counters Allen Blakey, a spokesman for the Vinyl Institute, a trade group. "But the fact is that you can recycle, landfill, and incinerate it safely and effectively."

The latest salvo was a December report that showed the world is awash with 300 billion pounds of PVC, much of it nearing the end of its 30- to 40- year useful life. In the United States, about 7 billion pounds a year of PVC become municipal solid waste, medical waste, or construction demolition debris, says the report from the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) in Falls Church, Va.

"People are taking the old vinyl siding off their homes or getting rid of old computers, and all that PVC goes into the waste stream," says Lois Gibbs, CHEJ executive director. "There isn't anyone thinking about what to do with it. You can't really recycle it, burn it, or landfill it without creating new problems for society."


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