Calmer seas ahead for PVC?

The PVC industry reckons it has turned a corner in Western Europe in its battle with Greenpeace to defend its environmental credentials, claiming that former customers are beginning to re-specify the polymer or delay phase-out plans. It recently received a boost from the European Commission’s decision to abandon plans for a PVC strategy because it has more pressing priorities. But the sector’s reputation, especially in relation to flexible PVC, remains under a cloud, and the Commission is planning restrictions on phthalate plasticisers. Meanwhile, the industry also faces economic pressures, with future growth in Europe dependent on new applications now that major markets such as underground pipes and window frames are mature.

"The recent history of PVC is not that good. The 1990s were a period of deselection when there seemed to be a competition between governments and NGOs to see who could be most negative about PVC. When Hydro Polymers offered me a job last year I asked my colleagues in the pipe industry whether I should take it, but their answer was that the trend seems to have changed. PVC may even gain some market share."

The words of Hydro Polymers’ senior vice president, Jan Sverre Røsstad, to delegates at the recent international PVC conference in Brighton, were typical of the sentiments expressed at the event by leading industry figures.

EVC International’s chief executive officer, Callum MacLean, claimed there are "signs of confidence in PVC returning" - and said that car makers such as DaimlerChrysler and General Motors going back on their commitments to minimise use of the polymer. Jean-Pierre de Grève, executive director of the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers (ECVM), said the pressure "is much lower than before in Europe."

The industry claims it has experienced a change of fortune because of two initiatives. One is its "Vinyl 2010" voluntary environmental programme (see box ), launched in 2000 in response to the Commission’s Green Paper on PVC. Much of the programme is focused on efforts to collect post-consumer PVC waste and develop recycling technologies.

The other is the Commission’s review of life-cycle assessments, published last year, which found little to choose between PVC and competing materials (ENDS Report 353, pp 32-33 ).

Speaking at the conference, Maik Schmahl of the Commission’s Enterprise and Industry Directorate revealed that the Commission has abandoned the Green Paper’s proposal for a strategy to reduce the environmental impact of PVC because it has more pressing priorities. However, Mr Schmahl also revealed that it had recently considered including a requirement to separately collect PVC, or plastics more widely, in proposals for a revised waste framework Directive (ENDS Report 361, p 55 ).

Market maturity
But even if PVC manufacturers are right and the number of companies boycotting PVC has fallen in recent years, the same period has seen little improvement in PVC’s sluggish growth in Europe (see figure). According to data published by PVC producer Solvay and chemical industry consultancy CMAI, the average consumption growth rate in Western Europe between 1997 and 2002 was just 0.1% per annum, and is expected to be only 0.5% between 2003 and 2008.

"Europe is a mature market," says CMAI’s Marguerit Morrin. "Growth is less than GDP."

Consultancy Harriman Chemsult, which specialises in the chlor-alkali sector and its downstream derivatives such as PVC, paints a similar picture. "Western Europe has been plodding along at 1-2% annual growth," says Henry Warren. "Within Europe as a whole, the main growth area is sales of window frames in Eastern Europe and Russia."

In fact, as the graph shows, growth in Western Europe has been driven for decades by applications for rigid PVC such as window and door frames, or "profiles", and pipes, which together account for more than 50% of total PVC consumption.

According to ECVM data, since the 1980s the proportion of total PVC consumption accounted for by pipes, rigid film and sheeting, cables, flooring and coatings has been stable, while the proportion used by bottles and flexible films has decreased. The only major application to increase its proportion is profiles.

The Greenpeace effect
Given that PVC’s major markets are in the construction and building maintenance sectors, growth rates would be unlikely to exceed GDP growth - regardless of Greenpeace’s campaign.

So has the campaign had any impact? Would, for example, growth rates have been slightly higher without the bad publicity, or have economic and technical factors dominated the choice of materials by downstream users?

The question is difficult to answer, with very little data on the reasons for material choice publicly available. Among the larger consumers, such as pipe and profile manufacturers, environmental issues "have not been a talking point for the last three or four years", says Harriman’s Henry Warren.

Keith Hall, the editor of UK magazine Building for a Future, says that in the pipes market "environmental issues are just one more factor for the builder or architect to weigh up. PVC’s ease of use, light weight, availability and low price are more important."

However, he believes Greenpeace’s campaign probably "had some kind of effect" in the UK - "if nothing like the effect in Germany", where in the late 1990s many local authorities decided to minimise their use of PVC.

CMAI’s Marguerit Morrin agrees. "Of course growth would have been a little bit higher without the campaign. Demand for PVC has fallen in some applications - for example, demand for bottles has dropped 5% over the last five years - but this is due to a range of factors, not just environmental issues."

In the window market, Mr Hall says use of PVC is "starting to peak" as the industry finds it increasingly difficult to persuade consumers to replace their existing PVC window frames with new PVC frames instead of wood. However, he believes this is because of quality issues rather than arguments about PVC’s green credentials.

PVC manufacturers point to the general economic recession in much of Europe as the main reason for the market being flat. In China and south-east Asia, high economic growth is supporting much higher growth rates.

On the other hand, sales in Japan have dropped by 25% in recent years, according to Tetsuo Nishide of the Japanese Vinyl Environment Council, because of public concern about its environmental impacts.

Mark Strutt, who until recently was Greenpeace UK’s senior campaigner on PVC and chemicals, agrees that it is very difficult to say how much impact his organisation has had on the market.

On the one hand, he claims some success. Since Greenpeace targeted PVC windows, "whenever sustainable construction is mentioned, PVC is mentioned." But there are economic barriers to its substitution. "Councils would be happy to specify wooden window frames, which are not much more expensive. But there is the additional cost of painting them every few years." He claims that alternatives to PVC, such as polypropylene, are finding "increasing favour" in the pipes market.

But a problem facing all environmental groups is that unless there is a direct risk from a product, it can be very hard to communicate a material’s environmental disadvantages.

Mr Strutt says that a report by the Environment Department (DEFRA) in 2001, which concluded that PVC was the best material for some uses, "didn’t help our cause". The report combined economic analysis and risk assessment with life-cycle assessment and largely ignored the toxicity of PVC additives, such as heavy metal stabilisers and phthalate plasticisers, and the effects of incinerating PVC (ENDS Report 314, p 32 ).

Convincing the retailers
Greenpeace has been less active on PVC in recent years, partly because of a need to turn its resources towards the proposed REACH legislation on chemicals - but also, perhaps, because it feels it can achieve little more on PVC and there are other, more pressing "toxics" issues across the globe.

Nonetheless, PVC remains a supply chain issue in much of northern Europe, including the UK, where some retailers, such as Marks and Spencer, the Co-op, Ikea and Boots, are seeking to eliminate or reduce their use of it.

Most of these companies use PVC mainly in packaging rather than products. In contrast, B&Q’s policy on PVC could have an influence that stretches beyond its own stores.

As part of its developing chemicals strategy (ENDS Report 344, pp 37-38 ), the company is about to consult its suppliers to find out where PVC is used. It will then assess the risks - including both environmental issues and possible threats to the B&Q brand - that such products may pose, focusing on products aimed at children, everyday products and high-volume products.

If any PVC products are deemed to pose a risk to its business, B&Q might decide to stock alternative products alongside them, or require suppliers to substitute additives such as heavy metal stabilisers or phthalate plasticisers, or PVC itself.

B&Q’s sustainability manager, Annie Johnson, warned delegates at the Brighton conference that "the debate is as much about perception and emotion as science", and that "there does seem to be casual acceptance by the newspapers that substitution of PVC is preferable." But, she added, "we are not ready to give up the ghost on PVC yet."

As part of its chemicals programme, the retailer is phasing out three phthalates - DEHP, DBP and BBP - which are classed as toxic to reproduction, and it is also eliminating cadmium, lead and tributyl tin in PVC.

B&Q is exploring whether it can sell PVC products such as flooring and profiles that contain recycled material, but says the presence of cadmium in old profiles could be a problem.

B&Q is one of two retailers - the other being Boots - belonging to the PVC Stakeholders Forum. Taking its lead from Hydro Polymers’ work with consultancy The Natural Step, the group was established last year by Forum for the Future to promote sustainable practices in the industry (ENDS Report 344, pp 25-28 ).

Other members are EVC, Hydro Polymers, the Environmental Services Association, the Government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme and the National Blood Service - but no additive producers or product manufacturers.

The Forum has established three workstreams:

  • Stakeholder reports: B&Q and Hydro Polymers will examine PVC production standards in China, where production capacity is forecast to almost double between 2003 and the end of this year. The country is a net importer of PVC resin, but many products containing PVC are exported from the Far East to Europe.

    "We need a level playing field so that imported products meet the same standards as those in Europe," says B&Q’s Ms Johnson.

    European PVC manufacturers are committed to meeting emission standards as set out in ECVM’s industry charters for the production of suspension and emulsion PVC, and the Vinyl 2010 phase-out schedules for cadmium and lead stabilisers. But because PVC is a commodity material traded internationally, these initiatives cannot on their own satisfy retailers that all PVC products on their shelves are manufactured to the highest standards.

    The Forum also plans to develop an approach that will feed into BRE’s green guide (ENDS Report 285, p 31 ) and broader specifications for construction materials.

  • Consumer views: Consumer research will be carried out to establish current views of the risks associated with PVC.

  • Consolidation and communication: A summary of existing research into "PVC and sustainability" will be produced, plus an annual PVC sustainability survey and report, focusing on PVC waste, including clinical waste.

    As part of this workstream, the Forum will also hold a workshop in June to understand and communicate the science on phthalate plasticiser toxicity.

    Dogged by phthalates
    The toxicity of some phthalate plasticisers presents perhaps the biggest risk to PVC’s image. Restrictions on phthalates proposed by the Commission "have certainly changed the debate on PVC," says Ms Johnson.

    A proposed EU Directive on phthalates would ban the use of DEHP, DBP and BBP in all toys because they are classed as toxic to reproduction.

    Three other phthalates, DINP, DIDP, and DNOP, would be banned in toys and childcare articles intended to be sucked by children. The Directive is currently awaiting a second reading in the European Parliament (ENDS Report 357, p 50 ).

    In addition, a broader EU risk reduction strategy is due to be issued for DEHP by the end of the year after the EU risk assessment is completed in June.

    DEHP is of the most common plasticisers, and is used in medical products such as tubing and blood bags. One of the areas under examination as part of the risk reduction strategy are potential endocrine disruption risks to new-born babies.

    Alternative plasticisers are available but their use is limited because they are more expensive for PVC compounders - the companies that blend additives with PVC resin to produce a range of different grades (ENDS Report 361, p 32 ).

    Producers of alternatives argue that retailers, for whom the greater cost is small, will put pressure on PVC compounders to switch.

    Looking long-term, the substitution of all phthalates - regardless of the lack of scientific justification for such action - would undoubtedly leave PVC in a better position to find new applications and compete with other materials. So would the speedy phase out of additives such as lead and tributyl tin stabilisers.

    Perhaps surprisingly, the wider plastics industry is offering to work more closely with the PVC sector.

    Speaking at the Brighton conference, Nancy Russutto, head of industry trade body Plastics Europe, claimed that many of PVC’s concerns are linked to the concerns of all plastics.

    Concerned that the imminent EU thematic strategy on resources might penalise plastics, Plastics Europe wants to focus attention on how plastics can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, for example by replacing heavier materials.

    It also hopes to use the so-called "Lisbon agenda" for developing the competitiveness of the EU economy to promote plastics as crucial in the drive for innovation.

    Focusing on climate change and the energy-saving potential of plastics would also help deflect attention from the low recycling levels that are achieved by most plastics.

    "There is an increasing administrative burden on industry and local authorities because of waste management legislation - is this the way to go?" she asked. "Our rather purist view of when recycling is beneficial is where recyclate can replace virgin material in a 1:1 ratio, where markets and specifications exist, and where clean material can be obtained."

    While such a strategy may make sense for other plastics, focusing on energy would be unwise for most PVC producers because of the huge amount of electricity used in the production of its chlorine feedstock.

    Moreover, in many applications, such as pipes and packaging, PVC competes with other plastics.

    Instead, the PVC industry is putting its faith in Vinyl 2010. Whether this will be enough to end criticism of PVC is debatable.

    Although the programme commits PVC manufacturers to phase out lead stabilisers by 2015, one manufacturer, Hydro Polymers, hopes to achieve this goal eight years earlier. There are no plans to restrict the use of those phthalates facing restriction under EU legislation, and the amounts of PVC that are being recycled remain small.

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