Looking through the windows

In defending the council s decision to install thousands of uPVC windows in its housing stock, Alan Turner, of Hackney Homes, appears to have uncritically accepted the dubious greenwash cranked out by the uPVC industry...

In defending the council's decision to install thousands of uPVC windows in its housing stock, Alan Turner, of Hackney Homes, appears to have uncritically accepted the dubious "greenwash" cranked out by the uPVC industry.

The facts are that uPVC is made from ethylene, extracted from non-renewable oil reserves. Huge amounts of energy are used, and heat generated, in making it. These are not problems "previously connected" with the material, they are the problems still.

The fact that the industry is, under pressure, claiming to reduce the damage it does is no more impressive than a burglar promising to steal slightly less valuable items in future. It is not promising to eliminate the damage, just to do a bit less of it. Lead stabilisers, for example, are to be "voluntarily" phased out, but not until 2015.

The sensible and safe alternative is to use renewable materials. Apparently, Hackney considered high-performance softwood, but no mention is made of native hardwoods, which may perform better. Native woods require only local transportation, no complex or harmful chemical manipulation and far less embodied or wasted energy in production.

When it comes to recycling, the industry gets really touchy and scuttles from reality to public relations hype. If PVC (whether plasticised or not) is so readily recycleable, why does Hackney refuse to collect it for recycling in its many domestic and packaging guises? The recycling symbol on PVC products has "3" in the centre. Hackney won't take it and neither will other councils. "Yoghurt pots, no thanks," they say.

Yet Mr Turner contemplates recycling much heftier lumps of the stuff in its unplasticised form. The council seems to be facing both ways at once, telling us different stories about the same materials.

Most Read

The reason PVC is not usually recycled is that the process is impractical and does further damage by yet more profligate energy consumption. The cost of re-granulating and re-compounding the material is prohibitive compared with making new PVC. And that's just the financial cost. The environmental cost? Accountants don't have formulae to calculate that.

The most alarming feature of the decision Mr Turner defends is that it was apparently made by a secret cabal. What a contrast with Brighton and Hove, where the council is currently deciding whether or not to specify uPVC for new windows under its Decent Homes programme. It is under heavy pressure from officers to do so, but last month its housing management sub-committee deferred a decision until a report from the Building Research Establishment (BRE) on the subject is published this month.

The BRE, being a creature of the building trade, will probably back uPVC. The interesting thing is that the committee considering the matter in Brighton comprises both councillors and tenant representatives in roughly equal numbers. It has decided that "residents should be consulted over the selection of component materials". No sign of anything like that in Hackney, where the decision was apparently made by officers alone without even councillors, let alone tenants, getting a look-in.

The result of this is poor decision-making based on narrow, usually short-term, criteria. Perhaps Mr Turner could tell us whether any independent technical advice was taken, or research studied, on the environmental cost of uPVC manufacture and the practicality and economics of recycling, or was the "careful study" confined to what "the market" says? If tenants had been fully consulted and involved before the initial decision on uPVC was taken, the obvious and routine questions about any scientific or technical information could have been asked. Who published this information? Who paid for the research? What financial interest do they have? What genuinely independent sources are available and what do they say?

The Hackney version of "consultation", on the other hand, amounts to telling us what we're getting whether we like it or not.

Jim Paton, Warburton Street,

South Hackney.

I AM writing on behalf of the British Plastics Federation, the trade association representing companies from the plastics industry supply chain, including polymer producers, suppliers and processors and additive suppliers, to express our concern about Julia Gregory's article on PVC-U windows in the March 22 issue.

I am surprised that Ms Gregory's article gave such credence to remarks by Julia Lafferty, who made serious errors in virtually every point she tried to make.

l It is possible to repair PVC windows.

l The lifespan, as reported in a study by the Building Research Establishment, is greater than 35 years.

l There is no PVC waste mountain. PVC waste is being collected and recycled led by an organisation call Recovinyl.

l PVC is recyclable and is being recycled - a 30 per cent increase between 2005 and 2006 of post-use PVC.

l The presence or absence of PVC in an incinerator makes no difference to the level of dioxins generated and, in any event, the local population is not at risk from incinerator emissions because of stringent legislation.

l There is no soil or water contamination, PVC being both inert and safe. It is used in many medical applications as well as in the transportation of water.

l Electricity generation and steel production are the main sources of dioxin production. As shown by Environment Agency Surveys, straw and wood burning also give off dioxins.

l Vinyl chloride emissions are strictly regulated under the IPCC integrated pollution and control regulations.

l UK PVC producers continually strive to go further to control emissions than even the most stringent regulations. While PVC production has doubled, dioxin levels have actually fallen by 50 per cent.

The one true fact is that PVC is non-biodegradable, which is why it is used to produce water pipes and is used so successfully in long-life building applications.

These are serious points and your readers have been seriously misled.

Tim Marsden, Industrial Issues Executive,

British Plastics Federation.