It seems that the desire to stem the tide of plastic in our lives (and in our oceans) has spread beyond the bag, with one in four homeowners actively planning to decrease the amount of plastics in their home this year, while 46% state they are conscious of the impact of synthetic materials on the natural environment and one in three conscious of the impact of synthetic materials in general on their wellbeing. When it comes to the most desirable, timber is cited by 67% of homeowners as material they would like to have more of in their homes.
What does this mean for our homes – and specifically our windows?
When it comes to weighing-up the environmental impact of wood vs PVC-u, although PVC-u may be cheaper, the long-term cost to the planet and our health remains high. Not to mention the fact that PVC-u window frames have almost half the life expectancy of modern engineered wood window frames.
An evaluation of the available studies shows that there remain considerable concerns about the impact on the environment of PVC-u windows.
Key among the concerns is the fact that PVC is made from Vinyl Chloride Monomer (VCM) – a Class 1 human carcinogen. To make matters more complicated, VCM is made from chlorine, the production of which is energy and emissions intensive - with 8.06 million tonnes of chlorine used to manufacture PVC in Europe in 2015.
Significant positive efforts have been made in recent years to increase recycling rates for PVC-u, with an estimated 15% of old PVC-u windows recycled in 2013. Paradoxically, recyclates are one of the main pathways for toxic legacy chemicals harmful to people and planet, such as cadmium and lead-based stabilisers to find their way into new PVC-u products.
These concerns have led many organisations to ban PVC or place it on a precautionary list (these include: The Cradle-to-Cradle Product Innovation Institute; the US Green Building Council; several US cities, including New York City; Google; Apple; Nike; Volvo; and Perkins+Wills Architects).
By contrast, wood from certified sustainable sources is naturally renewable. From a growing resource, wood is bio-degradable, can be recycled or burned for energy, and is a proven way of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (as wood products are carbon stores and growing forests are carbon sinks).