What is PVC?
PVC stands for Polyvinyl Chloride – the world’s third-most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer. Roughly 40 million tons of this plastic are produced each year. PVC is used widely in construction materials, medical equipment, shrink wrap packaging, and rubber duckies.
Many plastic children’s toys also contained PVC until recently. PVC has been known to contain vinyl chloride, a notorious carcinogen, as well as phthalates, that potentially make PVC one of the most toxic plastics.
PVC products are notoriously difficult to dispose or recycle. The chlorine releases toxins into the air when burned. Any recycling must be done by first breaking the PVC into smaller particles, then separating the added toxins until the PVC is pure. This is what’s known as Mechanical Recycling. PVC can be recycled 7 times, thus expanding its working lifespan to about 140 years. Unfortunately, this method is better used for industrial forms of PVC, not consumer ones, which are less purified.
Europe is currently leading the movement for a more sustainable use of PVC. Recovinyl, created in 2003, is an initiative of the European PVC industry to advance the sustainable development of PVC and develop better production methods while minimizing emissions and investing in new technology to improve recycling systems.
How is PVC Used in Jewelry?
Nearly every day, a new Polymer Clay brand is advertised on my Instagram feed – not to mention the 60,000 different styles of Polymer Clay earrings currently for sale on Etsy. Even notable sustainable brands are sponsoring small individually run Polymer Clay jewelry businesses.
PVC is the base ingredient for Polymer Clay. Polymer Clay is essentially just vinyl plastic that has become increasingly popular over the last year for making modern and moderately eccentric jewelry. The polymers add flexibility to the clay so it is easier to mold, fillers and resins are then added so the clay can easily retain its shape and texture.
All major clay companies are required to undergo testing to certify their clay is made of non-toxic materials that are suitable for handling. Once molded, the clay is put into the oven to be baked. If baked correctly there will be no issues.
If burned, the clay will release hydrogen chloride gas. This could burn your lungs but is not necessarily harmful.
Once baked, the clay is safe and relatively non-toxic. I say relatively because there is still a lot of controversy over this issue. They will not give off fumes of hydrogen chloride, but you would not want to ingest the material – if you were making a bowl out of Polymer Clay – as there could still be particles in the clay that have not been cured through the baking process.
Can Polymer Clay Be Made Out of Recycled Plastics?
In short, no. Polymer Clay is made from PVC, not HDPE or PET – which are the types of plastics found in bottles and bags – and are typically recycled for consumer use. PVC is also gradually being removed from the consumer market which makes it even harder to filter through the recycling stream.
Are There Sustainable Methods of Using Polymer Clay?
Somewhat. While it may not be produced from recycled plastics, individual artists can incorporate their own recycled materials – such as glass, wood, and metal- to create original pieces. This is not entirely sustainable though since it still includes the PVC. It is just a way for the artist to make use of recyclable materials.
One good thing about Polymer Clay jewelry is that it’s almost always made in small portions by relatively small local businesses. Every bit of clay can be used, so if the artist is savvy there will not be a great amount of waste.
Is Polymer Clay a Good Choice for Conscious Consumers?
I’ll leave that up to you. When purchasing a Polymer Clay product, you are usually supporting an independent artisan. It is up to this person to decide how they run their business. If made and used correctly, the products should last a very long time and are entirely safe from toxins. They are wonderfully unique pieces, but it is up to you to do the research on the brand you are buying from.
One brand that is ensuring their Polymer Clay is used and packaged in the most sustainable way possible is KENTO and you can learn more about their process here.
*The earrings photographed in this article are from the brand Sigfus
*The basket in the second photo is from a fair-trade brand called BeadforLife. You can learn more about the amazing opportunities they provide for female artisans in Africa