It is interesting how industry standards develop, regardless of the benefits of the alternatives. Because of so many other factors, cost often being a leading one, it is not always the best performing product that wins, or that becomes the standard. Classic examples include the VHS / BETA battle of the 70's and 80's. VHS became the standard, despite BETA's proven better picture quality. In the ‘90's Microsoft Windows became the standard operating system, despite better alternatives including the MAC or Unix. Often with environmental, or ‘green' products, the environmentally friendly alternative performs as well, if not better, than it's main stream competitor, but without the millions of dollars to put towards consumer education and advertising, consumers choose the one most readily available to them, and not necessarily the best product.
One example that currently receives significant press is the example of biofuels vs. petroleum. Early automobile engines were electric, predating the combustion engine that eventually became the industry standard. The world's first combustion engines for automobiles were developed using renewable resource fuels. The 1908 Model T was designed to run off of Ethanol (Ford and Standard Oil were in partnership and sold this biofuel, making up 25% of Standard Oil's sales at that time). But for many political and economic reasons, petroleum eventually won out as the automobile industries' choice of fuel. Now, 100 years later, political and environmental incentives are aligned for these ‘alternative' fuels to slowly regain acceptance. One has to ask oneself, ‘would we have the same concerns about global warming if biofuels had become the industry standard?' Clearly, the ‘better' alternative was bypassed.
A similar phenomenon is at play in outdoor furniture covers. Despite the fact that there are alternative fabrics available, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), most commonly known as ‘vinyl', is the most common material used in furniture covers. Even covers made of polyester almost always have a PVC or vinyl coating to make the covers water resistant. Vinyl (PVC) is used in most covers because it is cheap and gives water-resistance to polyester. The problem is that not only is vinyl extremely harmful to the environment and to people, but it is also harmful to outdoor furniture - the very thing it's supposed to protect!
Today, the environmental dangers of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), are known and no longer debated. Here is an excerpt from the May 2004 MIT Technology Review that discusses some of the hazards associated with vinyl (PVC) coatings.
"The main components of PVC, vinyl chloride monomer and ethylene dichloride are, respectively a known carcinogen and a probable carcinogen. Vinyl Chloride, which is made almost exclusively for the PVC industry, shows up prominently on the EPA's list of hazardous waste sites. Both are listed on the EPA's Toxic Release Index...Recent EPA data show that PVC production does produce dioxin, the short name for a group of chemicals that have been found to be highly persistent, toxic, and carcinogenic."
There are dozens of sites across the U.S. that used to make PVC, however, they have all been shut down due to the environmental hazards. Even today there are Superfund sites in California and other states that remain contaminated due to their use of and/or manufacturing of PVC. PVC production now happens in countries with lesser environmental standards. There are numerous websites that discuss the environmental and health impacts related to vinyl. Here are a few links that further discuss these issues, though there are many more, if you care to search:
Because vinyl does not breathe, moisture can easily be trapped underneath the cover and on the outdoor furniture, thus acting as a breeding ground for the growth of several types of fungi. Many people suffer from mold allergies. Allergic reactions can occur from contact with a variety of different kinds of fungi spores. Cladosporium (hormodendrum) and alternaria are fungi that thrive on outdoor furniture under a vinyl cover soaked with moisture. Cladosporium sp. is the most commonly found outdoor fungus and similarly, a common allergen. These fungi can cause skin disease and pulmonary illness when the body comes into contact with it.
Fungi thrive on finding nutritive places to grow including human skin, soil, or spores from furniture. Spores allow fungi to continuously live and grow in an environment, especially if nutritive sources (such as water) are present. For example, if one were to keep his or her vinyl furniture covers down in the basement or in a damp garage during the months when the cover is not in use (this could be winter or summer, depending on which climate you live in), the humidity and moisture may attract even more fungi on the cover, releasing harmful mold substances into the air in and around the home.
DESTRUCTION OF FURNITURE
Aside from the environmental concerns and the threat of illness, vinyl actually contributes to the destruction of the outdoor furniture that it is meant to protect. The aforementioned fungi, that causes health concern, also acts in other negative and more visually apparent ways. Many of the fungi that grow in dark shade are capable of staining furniture cushions, leaving behind dark (nearly black) patches that cannot be cleaned easily, if at all.
Microbes, including some of the fungi mentioned earlier, degrade vinyl covers and the furniture itself as well as some paints used on the furniture. Vinyl covers can and do degrade. Some degrade faster than others, but visible signs, such as cracking, stiffening etc., appear within weeks of being outdoors. UV rays from the sun are the main cause of the degradation. They attack the polyvinyl chloride and the plasticizers added to the PVC to make it into a flexible vinyl furniture cover. Microbes (bacteria and fungi) also play a role in the degradation of vinyl. As vinyl degrades, it gives off hydrogen chloride gas, which corrodes metals that may be used to make outdoor casual furniture.
A quote from Jacqueline Kroschwitz, a scholar and author in the area of chemistry, illuminates the troubles with PVC and the outdoor market: "If PVC were to be discovered today, its commercialization would be unlikely because of the extreme sensitivity of the polymer to both heat- and -light induced degradation" (Kroschwitz 250). And yet, the vinyl outdoor cover continues to be sold en masse.
There are outdoor covers available that do not contain PVC. These covers use engineered fabrics that are specifically designed for this application. Most of the fabrics are nonwovens or microporous films, which makes the covers breathable, thus eliminating moisture and mildew accumulation under the covers. These materials have been used in car covers for years since non-breathable covers (vinyl and vinyl-coated polyester covers) would lead to corrosion on the vehicle. Some of these materials are even recyclable (Dupont Tyvek® is one such material).
Another way to think about this is whether you would rather go hiking in a dri-weave t-shirt, manufactured to breathe and wick away moisture - or in a plastic bag. These are the alternatives one is considering for their outdoor furniture when deciding between a vinyl and an alternative cover. It is essential that covers allow furniture to breathe. Though vinyl cover manufacturers claim that their covers are breathable, their claims are suspect. Vinyl is in no way a breathable material. Vinyl covers often have air vents built into the product to permit air circulation. The trouble is- air circulation underneath is not enough to keep moisture from accumulating on the furniture and the air vents defeat the purpose of having the cover since they allow dirt, rain and debris in - the very things that the covers are meant to keep out.
Another factor to consider is durability. These alternative fabrics are also extremely durable - usually more durable than their vinyl counterparts, because they are manufactured to be UV stable and do not degrade in the same way as vinyl. These alternative covers are also durable, despite their light weight (made possible by using innovative, modern fabrics). The way that vinyl covers gain strength is to become thicker and heavier. This invariable makes the covers difficult to take on/off and store because of their weight and bulkiness. Imagine trying to remove these heavy covers off of a large item like a patio table and chair set. A person may pay slightly more for these alternative fabrics, though this depends on where the vinyl cover was purchased - don't be fooled - even high end hardware and furniture stores will sell vinyl covers. But to help the environment, to avoid health related problems and to help protect the life of your outdoor furniture, this is a very small price to pay.
Written by Carmen Sutherland, who manages an alternative outdoor covers company at www.koverroos.com.