Abstract The mechanism of the light-induced degradation of solid poly(vinyl chloride) (PVC) has been investigated, and an overall reaction scheme has been developed, based on values of the quantum yields for the primary photoproducts. Only a very small fraction (0.2%) of the excited polyenes induces the degradation of PVC, primarily by photocleavage of the allylic CCl bond. The high instability of β-chloroalkyl radicals is responsible for the chain dehydrochlorination that leads to formation of polyenes. In the absence of O 2, chain scissions and crosslinking are postulated to originate mainly from α-chloroalkyl radicals through β-cleavage of CC bonds and radical coupling, respectively. In the presence of O 2, the chain dehydrochlorination still proceeds, together with an oxidative chain process which yields, via peroxy and alkoxy radicals, hydroperoxides, ketones and peroxide crosslinks. Cleavage of the polymer backbone results most probably from the decomposition of tertiary alkoxy radicals by a carbon-carbon β-scission process.