Vinyl Windows, Whether Recycled or Not, Are Unsustainable. Period.

by Christian Stalberg & Duncan Rowe

In this article we have reviewed the sustainable use of polyvinyl plastics particularly as a material used in uPVC window frames. As mature students of the Masters Degree in Biomimicry at the Arizona State University in the US we applied, compared and contrasted the claims for use of green chemistry as a means for the practical and sustainable use of PVC. We applied Life's Principles, a set of principles and a living ethos, drawn from the 3.8 million years of best practise from Nature. Twenty six Life Principles are a discerning learning from the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute and are used as a guideline, framework and basis of principled thinking when designing new materials, products and processes or up cycling something that already exists in the human consumer world. Here, we take Life Principle's to one of the leading advocates of the green use of uPVC, that is Rehau United Polymer Solutions and their current practices for the continued use of PVC in window casings.

There have been a lot of accolades in the vinyl window manufacturing industry regarding the extent of their recycling PVC, but the truth is that they create, promote and sell a petroleum-based product that is not conducive to life. Recycling is not a solution but merely a stall tactic to avoid making the necessary investments required to replace the petrochemicals with safe components.

For example, Rehau United Polymer Solutions, recently won an award from BUILD magazine in recognition of their efforts for producing energy efficient building products with special attention being given to their TOTAL70 window product made with “…up to 100 percent post-consumer waste in the core, with only a virgin PVC-U casing”. While they’re accepting awards for recycling, they also vigorously defend their use of PVC claiming its environmental benefits, not adapting to changing conditions as more is known about the harms. This in spite of the fact that the State of California has identified PVC as a known carcinogen and the US Green Building Council discourages use of PVC products in their LEED green building certification program. Rehau states that PVC uses salt as its primary ingredient. The longer explanation is that they use chlorine in the manufacture of PVC, a corrosive gas which is a byproduct from the caustic soda manufacturing process using salt as a feedstock. This is greenwashing at its best.

A growing number of companies like Lego, Ford, Dell Computer, Coca-Cola and others have made the investments and adopted use of bioplastics in their product lines. Gary Noble, president of Bioplastics Solutions stated that “PHA can replace PVC and match performance and technical requirements, but the cost is the major issue.” Demand for bioplastics is what’s needed to lower costs. Bioplastics currently make up only 1% of the plastics market.

The TOTAL70 window product from Rehau, while it contains recycled PVC, is not truly evolving. Every time you recycle PVC, virgin additives have to be added to make the product reusable. Over time materials degrade along with performance and PVC is no exception. Recycling simply delays the inevitable, which is materials degradation to the point of unusability (end of life) followed by their disposal and subsequent release of toxic components into the environment.

In its annual reports Rehau emphasizes growth, new markets, products, etc. They admit that global megatrends like sustainability challenges them and they invest ten percent of their budget in innovation. Rehau’s manufacturing plant does not use onsite renewable energy although they do purchase green energy credits. They are pursuing resource efficiency in energy and materials use, reducing primary energy consumption and CO2 emissions by 16.8 and 26.5 percent over two years, respectively. Rehau has adapted somewhat to changing conditions, namely EU mandated PVC recycling targets. This has been demonstrated by Rehau’s acquisition of two window recycling companies DEKURA and PVC-R. The company is locally attuned to matters of energy and materials as evidenced by their participation in a number of industry recycling initiatives including VinylPlus, EPPA and Rewindo. Rehau mixes their own PVC onsite and also capture and process waste cuttings during window frame fabrication. While the TOTAL70 window only uses recyclates in its core, the Epwin Group a UK competitor has manufactured complete window profiles using 100% recycled plastic.

The TOTAL70 window product is multi-functional with modular and nested components, designed from the bottom up, has good weather resistance and builds on what works in the building products marketplace. Fitting form to function, Rehau’s offering comes in a range of colors, sizes and styles, and can readily accommodate double and triple pane glass. The TOTAL70 line smartly integrates development with growth across a range of window and door units available. Rehau’s product is responsive to changes in marketplace, like window thermal requirements in the Passivhaus® design standard.

In terms of preparing for the future where petroleum is scarce and costly however, Rehau does not appear to be balancing growth with development of alternatives to petroleum-based polymers. Furthermore, it’s expected that in order to address climate change, costs for petroleum will skyrocket as governments impose carbon taxes and mandate conversion to clean energy economies. Over the long-term, the company needs to evolve if it is to survive. Rehau needs to integrate the unexpected of climate change and rather than dig in its heels, would be well advised to switch to bio-based polymers for its window manufacturing sooner rather than later in order to remain competitive and ahead of the curve. They may also wish to consider outsourcing their PVC mixing and bypass altogether the costs of retooling for bio-based polymers.

Noble, Gary. Telephone interview. 9 Nov. 2018

How to Ensure Real Energy Savings When Rebuilding

The fires in California destroyed many homes and except for a few home sites that may be abandoned for one reason or another, most of these will be rebuilt. Out of the disaster arises an opportunity to design and build replacement homes that are not only more energy efficient than the homes that were lost but, if done properly, can be healthier and more comfortable for their inhabitants.

While building energy codes provide a modicum of energy savings, they fall far short of what can be achieved as they take what largely amounts to a 'one size fits all' prescriptive approach. In California, a building's prescribed level of building insulation and window u-values are based upon its location according to climate zone as defined by the state Title 24 Building Energy Efficiency Standards. The standards do not consider the impact on a building from site-specific landscape features such as topography, shading and wind direction. Sadly, building energy codes do not consider comfort of the building inhabitants, only energy savings.

There are energy conservation measures (ECM) that can yield substantive energy savings while providing greater comfort which are not considered in the building energy code as they are too complex to be 'dumbed down' in order to be prescriptive. One of the best examples of this is daylighting which is a very effective ECM yet is not required by the Title 24 Building Energy Efficiency Standards. Why? Because its too complicated. For if designed incorrectly, daylighting can result in overheating conditions. Another example is natural ventilation which harnesses openings in the building envelope and air pressure differentials to cause air to move through the house providing 'free cooling'. So how do you design a house that incorporates natural lighting and free cooling with real assurances of comfort? Energy modeling.

Interested in a carbon neutral or net-zero home? How you orient the building, shade the glass, incorporate daylighting and passive heating and cooling strategies plus the materials and systems you specify - the sum total of all of these will get you there. Only by using energy modeling can you incorporate all these measures to see the total impact on energy and cost savings. Combine this with life cycle cost analysis and you can even identify those ECMs where you'll get the greatest return on your investment.

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Roedingsmarkt 20 Achieves LEED Silver

Roedingsmarkt 20 - a 115,000 square foot office building located in Hamburg, Germany - achieved LEED Silver under Core and Shell. Enersim, Ltd. did the energy modeling for the project.

Isagen S.A. Achieves LEED Gold

Isagen S.A. - one of the largest producers and distributors of electricity in Colombia - has a new corporate headquarters. Located in Medellin. The building achieved a LEED Gold rating by the USGBC by deploying a number of building operation conservation measures including:
•fixed and movable shading
•daylight harvesting
•occupancy sensors controlling lights and HVAC
•elevator energy production
•rainwater collection

Additionally, 96% of the waste and residue generated by the building's construction was recycled, with the building itself using products with recycled material content, including steel, aluminum, concrete, drywall and wood.

Enersim, Ltd. performed the energy modeling for the project.


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