Chemically speaking, vinyl is a plastic made from two base substances: chlorine, found in salt, and ethylene, found in natural gas. When combined, these elements form ethylene dichloride, which through a process called polymerization becomes polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. The resin from this powder, cleverly called PVC resin, is the foundation of all vinyl products.
Interestingly, the process for creating vinyl was discovered by accident … twice. Two separate 19th century chemists stumbled across the basics of vinyl production by leaving vinyl chlorine gas out in the sun. In the 1920s, PVC production was standardized and ramped up in the U.S., with the ambition of providing a cheaper alternative to rubber and other plastics.
Gradually, vinyl made its way from random household products — shower curtains, rain coats — to more industrial applications, like gaskets and tubing. Vinyl also migrated into the music business when record manufacturers realized it was superior to the shellac discs they had been using. By the 1950s, most record companies had switched to vinyl.
As to the environmental and health issues of industrial vinyl manufacturing, there are many assessments to choose from. As usual, it depends on who you ask. Manufacturers and trade organizations say vinyl is friendly because it’s mostly made from salt, a natural material, and it supposedly uses less energy to manufacture than other plastics.
On the other hand, the EPA says that PVC production releases dioxins and pollutants into the atmosphere. There’s also evidence to suggest that harmful chemicals can leak out from PVC packaging and pipes into food and water. Greenpeace calls vinyl “the most damaging plastic on the planet.”
Jules has more details in his report, or you can consult the EPA’s hazard summary on vinyl chloride. Meanwhile, parents should be aware that listening to old Ramones records on vinyl can lead to other kinds of dangers.