Among the several hundred delegates at the PVC industry’s recent triennial conference in Brighton (see pp 25-28 ), critics were hard to come by. The only dissenting voice came from one of the speakers, B&Q’s sustainability manager, who faced angry demands for explanations after her presentation.
The official message was that PVC’s fortunes are at the turn of the tide. The European Commission has abandoned plans for measures to address its environmental impacts, Government reviews of the polymer’s life-cycle impacts have failed to conclude that it is any worse than competing materials, and product manufacturers are beginning to respecify the plastic.
Paradoxically, new environmental legislation may further stifle the criticisms. The tougher dioxin emission limits about to come into force under the EU waste incineration Directive may convince some people - especially if they are backed up by rigorous monitoring and enforcement - that PVC items do not need to be diverted from the household and commercial waste streams. Plastics manufacturers are also hoping that climate change’s dominance of the policy agenda could bring renewed focus on the benefits of lightweight materials in certain applications.
But PVC manufacturers would be unwise to take their eye off the ball. Its importance as a supply chain issue will only grow as retailers face new requirements under REACH, the proposed EU system for the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals, to register substances such as heavy metal stabilisers contained in imported products (see p 35 ).
Greenpeace may have less time for PVC these days, but to some extent its role is being taken over by companies with high-profile brands to protect. As the balance of power in the global PVC market tips away from Europe and towards China and the Far East, so the supply chain’s concerns are changing.
The need for international production standards will become more pressing and some companies may try to establish systems for tracing the source of their PVC products, just as already happens for timber products.
The use of phthalate plasticisers - some of which will be restricted under a proposed EU Directive - also remains a potential pitfall. If the national media latch onto the fact that research is being done on the potential effects of DEHP in medical devices on new-born babies, for example, the mud would almost certainly stick to all phthalates and all their uses.
Setting a timetable to phase out lead stabilisers by 2015 may give PVC compounders and stabiliser producers plenty of time to maximise the return on current investments - but it also drags the issue out for another ten years. Tin-based stabilisers will also remain under scrutiny.
And then there’s PVC’s abysmal recycling performance. Five years after the launch of the Vinyl 2010 voluntary programme, much of the EU has yet to see significant collection schemes get off the ground and the annual update reports make it - deliberately? - difficult to judge the programme’s level of ambition.
Vinyl 2010 may have given the European Commission the excuse it was looking for to forget about PVC but, unless it is beefed up, the programme will not win over the critics. The feeling persists that it could be more ambitious - after all, if Hydro Polymers can go lead-free by 2008, why can’t others?
If the less fraught atmosphere is making the industry feel more relaxed, now is the time for more open, inclusive discussions with retailers and environmental groups about how to overcome the barriers to reducing the polymer’s environmental impacts - and thereby reduce the business risks for downstream users.