s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 7-8 contents
A Chlorine-Free Future
—Not Only Possible, but Happening
by Bonnie Rice , Greenpeace
Ever since the International Joint Commission's 1992 unequivocal recommendation to the US and Canadian governments to phase out the use of chlorine and chlorinated compounds, the momentum for a chlorine-free future has been building worldwide. In just the last two years, the Paris Commission, the International Whaling Commission, the Nordic Council and parties to the Barcelona Convention—together representing over 35 countries—have called for a phase-out or zero discharge of chlorine and all chlorine-based compounds.
Public health professionals are also recognizing the dangers of industrial chlorine chemistry. In October of 1993, the American Public Health Association—the nation's oldest and largest association of over 30,000 public health professionals, called for the phase-out of chlorine. The 12,000-member Michigan State Medical Society has done so as well.
...alternatives exist for all major uses of chlorine.
The conventions, resolutions and recommendations made by these commissions and organizations around the world reflect the high level of concern over chlorine's health and environmental effects. What, if any, tangible steps are being taken to put those good intentions into practice? Is anything really changing?
Although we still have a long way to go, local, regional and national governments and many users of chlorine and chlorine-based products have already taken concrete steps toward phasing out chlorine—particularly in the three largest sectors—PVC plastics, pulp & paper bleaching, and solvents-proving that alternatives exist for all major uses of chlorine.
The single largest use of chlorine is polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. PVC plastic, or "vinyl," accounts for over 30% of all chlorine produced. PVC is heavily used in the construction sector; over half of all PVC produced is used for pipes, siding, windows, flooring, cabling and other building uses. Another 20% is used in packaging. It is also used for shower curtains, children's toys, credit cards, raincoats and hundreds of other products.
It has been under direct attack in Europe for several years. Most recently, a committee chaired by the head of the Swedish EPA recognized PVC's dangers and called for a complete phase-out by 2001, after a year-long review of PVC's health and environmental effects requested by the Swedish government. In the words of the EPA chair Lennart Daleus, "PVC does not belong in an ecological society."
Germany, Austria, and Sweden are leading the way in banning the use of new PVC products or phasing out existing PVC, but many other countries are jumping on the PVC "banwagon" as well, and switching to clean alternatives.
A 1987 fire in a bowling alley in the town of Bielefeld, Germany, which left high dioxin levels in the ash, started a wave of concern over PVC in building products. Bielefeld led the way in proving a transition to clean alternatives was possible, achieving a 90% phase-out of PVC in the town's public buildings in just 2 years. Banning PVC in buildings is critical, as approximately 60% of all PVC produced is used in construction.
Since Bielefeld, local authorities in three states or provinces in Germany and three in Austria have banned or are phasing out PVC in public buildings. Many of the Austrian regional capitals including Vienna, and Salzburg (the home of Solvay, Europe's second largest PVC producer), have as well. Norway's second largest city, Bergen, has also begun phasing out PVC in its public buildings, as has Berlin. There are now over 100 communities in Europe which now have PVC bans or phase-out programs.
Banning PVC in buildings is critical, as approximately 60% of all PVC produced is used in construction.
Hospitals in Austria and Denmark are going PVC-free. A large, recently-opened hospital in Vienna is almost entirely PVC-free, using PVC only where there are absolutely no safe alternatives yet, such as for blood bags. Other Austrian hospitals are following in their footsteps. The Grena hospital in Denmark now uses 70% less PVC than it did in 1986. The subway system in Vienna is now completely PVC-free.
Also of importance are the positions recently taken against PVC by European companies which sell PVC products in their stores, or use PVC to make their products.
Tarkett, the world's second largest flooring manufacturer with 70% of the world's flooring market and 70% of the world PVC flooring market, announced last year that it will phase-out PVC flooring, citing the reasons: "The raw material we were using was a threat against our main product; PVC producers cannot convincingly refute the arguments against them; and there did not seem to be any tolerable solution to the problems of PVC production and PVC waste." Tarkett's decision was extremely important, as they are a large PVC product manufacturer, using 80,000 tons of PVC per year.
European retailers have also read the writing on the wall regarding the future of PVC and consumer disapproval of PVC products. In 1991, the Swedish company IKEA, one of the largest furniture distributors in the world, decided to phase-out PVC from its products worldwide. Large retailers in Switzerland, Germany and Denmark have virtually phased out PVC from their product lines. German and Austrian manufacturers of office equipment and toys are phasing out PVC from their products.
PVC packaging is the second largest use of PVC, accounting for approximately 20% of all PVC produced. It is being aggressively phased out all over Europe. Switzerland has banned PVC mineral-water bottles. PVC packaging has been virtually eliminated by all Austrian supermarkets. The Danish supermarket chain, Irma, has achieved a 99% reduction in PVC in all products sold. Sony-Europe, one of the world's largest users of packaging, now has a PVC-free packaging policy. Two large mineral-water producers, SPA and EVIAN, have phased out PVC bottles in favor of other plastics.
Noticeably missing from this list of PVC bans/phase-outs is the US.
Noticeably missing from this list of PVC bans/phase-outs is the US. We need to bring the European momentum here and to other parts of the world; we are the largest PVC producer, PVC appears to be the largest source of dioxin. We need to use the EPA dioxin reassessment to put the pressure on the PVC industry in this country.
Pulp and paper (p&p)
The second largest use of chlorine is in p&p. There are now approximately 55 mills worldwide which are producing totally chlorine-free pulp-proving that there are no technological barriers to totally chlorine-free production (TCF).
Although the Western European p&p industry has virtually phased out chlorine-based bleaching practices, North America lags far behind and constitutes an enormous block to a worldwide transition to TCF. Two bright spots, however, have appeared on the horizon in recent years in Canada. British Columbia, the largest pulp producing regions in the world, has passed legislation mandating the phase-out of chlorine and chlorinated compounds such as chlorine dioxide, by the year 2002. Ontario has followed suit, with aggressive regulation which severely ratchets down the amount of chlorine allowed in effluent through the 1990's, and requires all p&p companies in the province to submit plans in 1996 as to how they plan to achieve zero discharge of organochlorines by the year 2002.
A hopeful sign in the US is the Chlorine Zero Discharge Act, which now has over 60 cosponsors and is an amendment now being considered as part of the Clean Water Act. It appears, however, that the key to a chlorine-free US pulp and paper industry is through pressuring large paper purchasers such as Time magazine to go chlorine-free.
Time buys over 45,000 tons of paper a year; Time and its parent company Time Warner are one of the largest paper purchasers in the world. They have the power to change the North American pulp & paper industry because if they and others like them say they'll use chlorine-free paper, the industry will produce it. A Greenpeace campaign pressured Time into promising to go chlorine-free as soon as TCF paper was "practically available." It is, but they haven't. Chlorine-free activists everywhere need to put the pressure on Time.
Chlorinated solvents are primarily used in degreasing and metal cleaning, for example, in the automobile and electronics industries. Chlorinated solvents are also the mainstay of the dry cleaning industry.
The only real bans on chlorinated solvents (other than the Montreal Protocol) are in Austria and Sweden, which have banned all consumer uses (paints, varnishes) of all chlorinated solvents. Sweden has also banned all industrial uses of all chlorinated solvents as of 1996, with one exception—perchloro-ethylene (perc) in dry cleaning, because there were no known alternatives. Dry cleaning was the one block on a complete ban.
This is an important point because dry cleaning is the largest single use of perc—the US dry cleaning industry alone uses approximately 300 million pounds a year.
But there is good news in this sector as well. Clean alternatives for clothes cleaning, based on the use of water and natural soaps, have been identified. There are now a handful of professional cleaners in the US and Europe who have successfully phased out their perc-based operations and are now using water-based methods exclusively. EPA tests determined that water-based cleaning performs "as well, or better" than traditional perc-based cleaning, employs more people, and can be more profitable.
Because of these developments, the Swedish EPA recently called for a phase-out of perc in dry cleaning by 2001 and put an environmental fee on perc, as they are satisfied that water-based alternatives can replace perc for cleaning clothes.
What does this show us?
Alternatives do exist for all the major sectors of chlorine and that, with enough pressure, a chlorine phase-out is possible. Obviously, though, there is a long fight ahead—particularly here in the US. We are the world's largest chlorine producer. We are the world's largest PVC producer.
But it can happen if we're persistent and keep up the fight. Significant progress has been made, and the US and Canada have led the way with the IJC and the APHA recommendations. The policy of banning organochlorines as a class, instead of on a chemical-by-chemical basis, is now in mainstream discussion. The chlorine industry is on the defensive—investing millions of dollars into PR campaigns—because they know we're right, and that we can make it happen!
For more information on dry cleaning, see:Bonnie Rice & Jack Weinberg (1994), Dressed to Kill: The Dangers of Dry Cleaning and the Case for Chlorine-Free Alternatives, 40 pp. Available from Pollution Probe, 12 Madison Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, M5R 2S1 Canada 4116-926-1907.