A vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) plant in China that uses mercury. Photo credit: United Nations

Dioxins.  Vinyl chloride.  Phthalates.

There are an appalling number reasons why we consider vinyl to be the most toxic plastic on the planet.

One reason that many people don’t realize is that the vinyl chemical industry is one of the biggest users of mercury in the entire world, in fact the #2 user globally, and that use has been increasing in recent years – primarily in China, where many of our vinyl plastic products come from.

China is the world’s biggest user and emitter of mercury and within China, the single biggest users of mercury are the factories turning coal into PVC.

PVC, mercury and chlorine production

The United Nations estimates the chlorine industry has 100 plants in 44 countries across the globe that still use mercury to make chlorine.  The #1 use of that chlorine is to make vinyl plastic, like vinyl flooring, pipes and school supplies.

According to the US EPA, In the U.S., the chlor-alkali industry is currently the largest private-sector source of stored and in-use mercury, and therefore the largest private-sector source of potential new supplies as a result of future closures or conversions of mercury cell chlor-alkali equipment or plants.”

PVC, mercury and vinyl chloride monomer in China

In China and Russia, mercury is also used to make vinyl chloride monomer, the basic building block of PVC.  And this use of mercury is increasing at an appalling rate.

According to the United Nations, Vinyl Chloride Monomer (VCM) production using the mercury catalyst process is the second largest demand sector for mercury globally (estimated at 570-800 tonnes annually in 2008). The process has emerged as a cost effective production technique for countries with high availability of acetylene over ethylene as raw materials (namely in China and Russia). It is believed that China represents 80-90 % of global capacity with 89 facilities currently identified.  UNEP has collaborated with China on this important topic since 2008.”

Vinyl plastic industry’s use of mercury on the rise

In 2002, the Chinese PVC industry used 354 tons of mercury. Within two years, that had increased to 610 tons, growing at an annual rate of 31.4%.  It’s been estimated that mercury usage continued to increase to over 1,000 tons by 2010.

No one really knows precisely how much the industry is using today, or how much of that mercury may be getting into the air, oceans and fish we all eat.

Why should we care?

According to the United Nations:

“Mercury is recognized as a chemical of global concern due to its long-range transport in the atmosphere, its persistence in the environment, its ability to bioaccumulate in ecosystems and its significant negative effect on human health and the environment.

Mercury can produce a range of adverse human health effects, including permanent damage to the nervous system, in particular the developing nervous system.  Due to these effects, and also because mercury can be transferred from a mother to her unborn child, infants, children and women of child bearing age are considered vulnerable populations.”

The UN’s most recent assessment identifies the vinyl chlorine industry as one of the biggest sources of mercury on the planet.

If we want to eliminate global use and releases of mercury, one thing we can do is phase out the use of this hazardous plastic that is fundamentally reliable on this global pollutant.  That’s a global strategy we can get behind.