Look Out Any Window

Vinyl or PVC, as its also known, has been widely criticised as environmentally 'unfriendly'. Yet vinyl windows are everywhere you look. Which kind of windows should TreeHuggers favor? The entries from today's window competition are: made from all wood; all vinyl; all aluminum; wood or aluminum coated with vinyl (or paint); and, wood and fiberglass composites, variously coated. Clearly, the choice of "best" is hard to make for a commodity like windows.
Theoretical question to prompt insight: is your 65 mpg Toyota Prius suddenly "bad" if you discover it has 20 feet of vinyl-covered wires? Would it trouble you so that you might donate it to a struggling writer?

Throw open the reality window to see past the sweeping generalities. Buildings consume as much energy as vehicles. Much the nation's housing stock is made up of ancient structures with leaky, poorly insulated windows. Eighty year old wooden windows old may look nice, but they are very inefficient and probably have been leaking air like seives for half that time. Same for the early aluminum varieties.

Millions of people with low incomes live with inefficient, uncomfortable windows. Vinyl replacement windows are the most common and easily installed technology for upgrading energy performance affordably. Highly energy efficient wooden windows are made and priced for rich people only. Take away vinyl windows and you remove the most affordable means of dramatically improving the efficiency of older buidings.

Let's loop back to the earlier question. Vinyl coated wires, if they're there (just a guess for making symbolic point), probably constitute only a 100'th of a percent or less of gross vehicle weight. Most would ignore a tiny bit of vinyl in their car to help avert the planetary castastrophe of man-induced climate change and the looming economic tragedy of Peak Oil.

What about your windows? Consider the mass of PVC spread amongst the 60 windows of a 4 story brick flat. As with the Prius, its a very tiny percent of the total weight of the structure. On the other hand, that tiny mass can dramatically up the energy efficiency of the building. Each winyl window, regardless of whether it faces the sun or not, has a design life that greatly exceeds that of top-of-the-line wooden windows. Even if you could afford to replace old windows wth all wooden ones, in 30 years the dry rot and warping could bring the performance right back to where it was.

Short-lived or single use items made of PVC are in a different class and are not covered by this line of reasoning.

Claiming that all vinyl applications are "bad" gives the free-market utopians (on the political right) proof that the new mantra, "environmentalism is dead", is true. Its a checkmate. What must die is absolutism and uncritical thinking on both sides of the debate. A parley with the vinyl industry, a simple acknowledgment, if you will, that some vinyl products are helpful, will take the wind out of the utopian sails. CLimate Change and Peak Oil are serious risks from which idealogical stalemates distract.

by: John Laumer