PVC-free irrigation

Why PVC free irrigation? Although widely used in the landscaping industry, there are disturbing questions about this material both for the environment and human health. In this article we first explore PVC’s history and concerns with an excerpted blog post, “PVC, the next asbestos?”  followed by information about an alternative pipe we have found to be both effective and safe.Why PVC free irrigation? Although widely used in the landscaping industry, there are disturbing questions about this material both for the environment and human health.

What is PVC?

There’s a good reason why manufacturers call it “PVC.” Calling it by its real name provides a hard and horrible reality to what PVC actually is. You may be saddened to hear that PVC stands for Polyvinyl Chloride. Sounds bad, doesn’t it? It’s actually much worse.

It has become apparent that this seemingly harmless plastic is one of the most environmentally hazardous consumer materials ever produced. Although it seems to be an ideal building material, PVC has high environmental and human health costs about which manufacturers fail to tell consumers. If you believe that PVC is totally safe, you’ve been lied to. It is the worst plastic from an environmental health perspective, threatening major singular hazards from its inception to its disposal. In other words, PVC becomes harmful the second it’s created until it is disposed of—and even at that point, it still poses toxic exposure in a landfill or incinerator. That means it emits toxic compounds when it’s being made, while its in use and when it gets disposed of.


One form of PVC free irrigation.

The Making of PVC and Beyond

During the manufacture of the building block ingredients of PVC (such as vinyl chloride monomer), dioxin (the most potent carcinogen known) and other persistent pollutants are emitted into the air, water and land, which present both acute and chronic health hazards. During its use, PVC products can leach toxic additives. For example, vinyl flooring can release softeners called phthalates. When PVC reaches the end of its useful life, it can be either be sent to a landfill, where it will leach toxic additives, or incinerated, where it will emit dioxin and heavy metals. When PVC burns in accidental fires, hydrogen chloride gas and dioxin are formed and released.

Polyvinyl chloride is unique in its high chlorine and additives content, which makes it an environmental poison throughout its life cycle. Vinyl chloride is a known human carcinogen, which can lead to a number of cancers, endocrine disruption, endometriosis, neurological damage, birth defects, impaired child development and reproductive and immune system damage. PVC releases dioxin and other persistent organic pollutants during its manufacture and disposal and cannot be readily recycled due to it chlorine and additive content. Furthermore, additives are not bound to the plastic and leach out.

Dioxins from PVC—The Impact
Dioxin’s impact doesn’t stop there. As a persistent bioaccumulative toxin (PBT), it does not break down rapidly and travels around the globe, accumulating in fatty tissue and concentrating as it goes up the food chain. Dioxins from Louisiana manufacturing plants migrate on the winds and concentrate in Great Lakes fish. Dioxins are even found in hazardous concentrations in the tissues of whales and polar bears and in Inuit mother’s breast milk. The dioxin exposure of the average American already poses a calculated risk of cancer of greater than 1 in 1,000—thousands of times greater than the usual standard for acceptable risk. Most poignantly, dioxins concentrate in breast milk to the point that human infants now receive high doses, orders of magnitude greater than those of the average adult.

Lethal Additives
PVC is useless without the addition of a plethora of toxic chemical stabilizers—such as lead, cadmium and organotins—and phthalate plasticizers. These leach, flake or outgas from the PVC over time raising risks that include asthma, lead poisoning and cancer.

Construction and PVC
The construction industry has been unaware of or ignoring its true cost and long considered it a cheap convenient material. Piping, vinyl siding, and vinyl flooring are the largest and most familiar uses of PVC. In landscaping PVC is primarily used in irrigation. Vinyl roof membranes are growing use. It is also used in electrical wire insulation, conduit, junction boxes, wall coverings, carpet backing, window and door frames, shades and blinds, shower curtains, furniture, flues, gutters, down spouts, waterstops, weatherstripping, flashing, moldings and elsewhere. Fortunately, for each of these uses, there exists a wide range of cost effective alternative materials that pose less of a health hazard to workers and the public at large.

Replacing PVC in your projects is easier than you may think. A number of resource guides are available to help you find green construction materials. But beware: some construction materials labeled “green” actually contain recycled PVC/vinyl and frequently require that virgin PVC be mixed with the recycled.

* Piping
Cast iron, steel, concrete vitrified clay, and plastics such as HDPE (high density polyethylene).

The information above was excerpted and reprinted with permission from a Blog post in “Why Travel In France”.

Ecological landscaping is for thinking people.

After reading the information above you might ask how do practitioners of ecological landscaping address the PVC issue? This is a vexing problem. PVC is the dominant product available in irrigation stores. While some of us are happy watering by hand—and yes, one form of PVC-free irrigation is no irrigation system at all—in the built landscape we need a way of getting water to the plants in an efficient and convenient manner.

Terra Nova has found HDPE (high density polyethylene) to be the most effective alternative. HDPE is non-PVC plastic piping that plumbers are using increasingly in new home construction and remodeling. For instance, radiant-heat floors use HDPE pipe to deliver the warm water that circulates for heating the home.

Here is underground irrigation being installed with PVC free HDPE.

Another upside of using HDPE pipe is that no toxic primer or glue is needed because the pipe joints are connected using a mechanical process.

This tool is used to make the joint connections. The installer is spared breathing toxic fumes from the primer and glue. If you have ever installed PVC pipe you can appreciate what a benefit that is!

Drip systems are built with polyethylene, which is a non PVC soft tubing.



As you can see we really get wrapped up in our work.

We’re proud to offer PVC free irrigation for all you thinking people out there.

For more information, read “Ten Reasons to Avoid PVC Plastic” on the Greenpeace website archives.


About Ken

In 1967, 10-year-old Ken Foster read The Secret Garden by Frances Burnett. It took him a whole summer to read, but it inspired him to see gardening as a celebration of our coexistence with nature. In 1985, he took on an apprenticeship at the UC Santa Cruz Farm and Garden, and there he discovered his passion. He founded Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping in 1988, and has dedicated his life to caring for the environment and community through sustainable landscaping. He also teaches a permaculture class at Cabrillo College. When he’s not busy with designing, installing, and maintaining ecological landscapes, Ken can be found riding his bike around town, or making mandalas out of salvaged herbs that would otherwise have been sent to the landfill.


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