The Vinyl Institute, an industry group, strongly disagrees. "Vinyl’s been used safely since the 1950s, including in medical products that have been approved by the FDA, pipes that are used to deliver drinking water and consumer products that are approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission," says Allen Blakey, vice president of industry and government affairs. Whether the issue is manufacturing or disposal, the environmental and health issues raised about PVCs are manageable, he said.
And Walmart? Here things get fuzzy. Walmart's supplier sustainability index, based on "hotspots" identified by The Sustainability Consortium, encourages toymakers to manage their use of PVCs. (Here is a PDF of questions that The Sustainability Consortium has raised about plastic toys. Note that the first is about PVCs.) It's safe to assume that suppliers that respond that "we are actively eliminating PVC from our products" will score higher than those who do not.
And isn't there risk when Walmart takes on a role ordinarily left to government regulators who, at least in theory, are accountable to the public?
Michelle Harvey of the Environmental Defense Fund, who works closely with Walmart, says the sustainability index is important precisely because it can push industries to go beyond what they are required by law to do.
“If a retailer has the capacity to move a category in a way that’s better for consumers, for workers, for the planet, I don’t see that as being problematic," she said. "That’s why we’re in Bentonville.”
The trouble is, Walmart doesn't have to hold hearings or invite public comment before laying out its goals.
The Vinyl Institute's Blakey says: “We were never asked to engage or provide data into the process."
Even now, it's hard to know what, exactly, troubles Walmart about PVCs. By email, Kevin Dooley, a professor of supply-chain management at Arizona State University and academic director of research at The Sustainability Consortium, told me:
In investigating the life cycle of plastic toys, TSC found several publications in the literature that document the increased incidence of cancer for workers in PVC manufacturing. Our stakeholders noted that many of the studies were relatively old, which is true, and that modern production facilities have equipment and processes that reduce or eliminate these risks, so TSC's improvement opportunity for this issue focuses on the Environmental Health & Safety systems that the PVC manufacturer has in place.
If the focus is health and safety in manufacturing, though, it's not clear why suppliers would be asked whether they are "actively eliminating PVCs."
To see what the world's big toymakers think about this, I reached out to Mattel, LEGO and Hasbro. Mattel declined to be interviewed, and sent me this statement about PVC:
As one of the most highly-tested plastics in the world, PVC meets international standards for safety and health. It is an extremely versatile material that is durable, safe and easy to clean. It is also more resistant to stress marks from impacts and flexation compared to other alternative plastics. Our evaluations to date of alternative plastics have not identified a material that is able meet all of Mattel’s quality, safety, aesthetic, supply-chain and cost requirements, while at the same time exhibiting improved environmental attributes.
So Mattel is sticking with PVCs.
Next page: Who benefits from the index?