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PVC free solutions

Background - 2 June, 2003
There are many alternatives to PVC. Companies, councils and governments have already started to move away from the poison plastic.

Alternatives to PVC used throughout the Sydney Olympic Village.

PVC free initiatives

Many governments, local authorities, businesses and various other organisations have agreed to restrict or phase out PVC and chlorine to varying degrees.

This demonstrates the feasibility of replacing chlorine and PVC with cleaner alternatives and shows that this is actually occurring in a large number of countries and businesses.

For more information see the full report on PVC-Free Future - A Review of Restrictions and PVC-free Policies Worldwide. This lists specific actions taken by national and local governments and other organisations to restrict chlorine and PVC. It also identifies companies that have taken action to phase out the PVC use. The report gives details about many international agreements on the elimination and reduction of hazardous substances, in particular organochlorines.

Over the years there have been a number of international agreements on hazardous substances, especially organochlorines. The most notable of recent times is the OSPAR (Oslo - Paris) agreement to 'move towards the target of cessation of discharges emissions and losses of hazardous substances by the year 2020', which is known as the 'generational goal'. Fourteen countries discharging into the North East Atlantic, and the EU made this agreement.

Selected PVC use alternatives

For virtually all PVC applications, safer alternatives exist. It is possible to use more sustainable, traditional materials, such as paper, wood or local materials.

PVC can also be replaced by a variety of other, less environmentally damaging plastics. However, most plastics pose some risk to the environment and contribute to the global waste crisis.

Alternatives are available on the market for the vast majority of all PVC uses.

Construction applications, such as pipes, fittings, sidings, and window profiles, account for over 50 percent of PVC consumption. Other PVC uses include furniture, wall and floor coverings, automobiles, electronic equipment, wire and cable coatings, packaging, and medical devices.

The most appropriate substitute depends upon the qualities required for each PVC application.

Alternatives

Window profiles - Wood

Pipes - Concrete, steel, galvanized iron, copper, clay, chlorine-free plastics, including high-density polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polyisobutylene.

Flooring - Linoleum, wood, stone, rubber, PE and PP.

Cable coatings - PE, ethylene-vinylacetate copolymer (EVA); polyamide, silicone, and other thermoplastic elastomers.

Packaging - No packaging at all, glass, paper and cardboard, PP, PE, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Wall coverings - Paint, tiles, paper-based wallpaper.

Roof-sheeting - Synthetic rubber, polyolefin sheeting, traditional materials made from tar, wood, and other materials.

Gutters - Galvanised iron.

Shutters and blinds - Wood and chlorine-free plastics.

Furniture - Wood, metal, textiles, leather, and chlorine-free plastics such as butadiene-polyamide copolymer.

Office supplies - Metal, wood, PP, PE.

Automobiles - Metal, textiles, chlorine-free plastics, including polyolefins.

Medical uses - Glass, latex, chlorine-free plastics including PP, PE, PET, EVA, polybutylene terepthalate, block copolymers, and silicones.

PVC free pipes and ducts

One of the largest uses of unplasticised PVC (u-PVC) is in rigid pipes for above ground and underground drainage, electrical cables and gas pipes.

For underground sewage or water pipes vitrified clay pipes are suitable and are very durable. The expected service life of a clay pipe is commonly given as 100 years. Clay pipes also have a high resistance to chemicals in wastewater.

Alternative materials to PVC in sewage pipes may perform better over time. The city of Nyborg in Denmark reported that the PVC main sewage pipe had become extremely brittle and required frequent replacement. In the UK, Anglian Water specifies polyethylene or ductile iron pipes in their mains renovation programme. Neither do they allow developers to use PVC pipe in new sewage schemes for engineering reasons. HDPE pipes are more flexible and shock resistant.

For above ground drainage, such as soil and vent pipes and guttering, materials such as zinc, cast iron, copper, galvanized steel or aluminium can be used as an alternative. Metal guttering has a longer service life although it may require some maintenance. A new urban development in Leidsche Rijn (near Utrecht) in the Netherlands, which will provide over 30,000 new- built houses and 700,000 m2 of office space, is minimising the use of PVC. In particular the water and sewerage system will be PVC free. Some of the first stages of the housing project have already been built.

The UK gas industry now only uses medium density polyethylene (MDPE) pipe because it is more flexible than PVC pipe.

PVC free electrical cables and wiring

All the alternative cable types have better properties than PVC in the event of a fire. They generate less smoke, do not release hydrochloric acid or dioxins and have fire-resistant qualities that match or outstrip PVC. All PVC-free cables cost more at present but will drop in price as consumers and municipalities demand safer material use.

Use of PVC free electrical cables is growing, particularly in the transportation sector, where safety is critical. Many underground railway systems in the US and Europe use PVC free cables (also known as low-smoke, zero-halogen or LSOH cables). Vienna, Berlin, Dusseldorf, Bilbao and London all avoid PVC cables underground. Similarly, Eurotunnel, Deutche Bahn, P&O Cruises and the US Navy all specify PVC free cables.

Electrical cables manufacturers have already developed and marketed several halogen-free alternatives to PVC cable, as a result of concern over PVC combustion emissions. When cable is designated halogen-free this means it cannot contain PVC or any other organochlorine based chemicals.

The main alternative power cables, in the high and medium voltage range, use polyethylene as an insulation and sheathing material. Rubber sheathed cables are also available. For low voltage uses such as domestic wiring, the alternatives are polyethylene or rubber insulated halogen free cables.

PVC free flooring

Alternatives to PVC flooring are easy to find, are competitively priced and perform as well as, if not better than PVC.

Natural materials - Ceramic tiles and marble are highly durable. Stone and terrazos are also traditionally, durable materials. When a softer floor surface is required, wood, cork and linoleum can be used. Cork is indigenous to the Mediterranean region. It is hard wearing, very sound absorbent and popular because it is agreeable to walk on due to reflection of warmth and it's natural bounce. Cork floor coverings are available with untreated or sealed surfaces. Types which are sealed with artificial resins (polyurethane) or PVC should be avoided.

Wood - A natural alternative to PVC flooring which is very durable and can be renovated by planing or sanding. Increasingly, reclaimed wood floors are available. When using new wood it is important to source wood from certified forests where clear-cutting and other environmentally damaging practises are banned.

Linoleum - Once the dominant material in the market for elastic floorings, before the 50's trend for synthetic materials. Linoleum is made of renewable materials and consists mainly of vegetable linseed oil where a natural resin is added. The mixture is spread on hessian fabric and the surface treated with water-based acrylic 'dispersion' paint. Linoleum has very low flammability, is antistatic, light resistant, sound absorbent, and resistant to fats and oils and has a natural antibacterial effect.

Renovation - Cork and wooden flooring can be renovated and for that reason, these floorings have a longer durability, which often justifies the higher costs of fitting. Linoleum can also be partially renovated to repair normal wear and tear.

Synthetic materials for special cases could be rubber and other polymers.

Rubber - Several companies produce rubber floor coverings, which have proven effective in situations where floor coverings must be very durable, such as airports and sports stadiums. Rubber flooring that contains chlorine-based ingredients should be avoided. The Danish EPA recommends Ethylene propylene diene (EPDM) rubber as an alternative to PVC.

Other polymers - Polyolefin floor coverings (PP and PE) are now offered by leading flooring manufacturers such as the German company DLW and the British company Amtico. The main application for polyolefin flooring is for industrial use, however, flooring for domestic use is also available. These floorings are non-flammable, sound absorbent and resistant to wear and tear.

PVC free windows

Despite the claims made for u-PVC windows (unplasticised PVC), wooden window frames have advantages over PVC. U-PVC windows do degrade, they are not maintenance free and worst of all they cannot be repaired where necessary.

Developments in timber window design and finishing products means that modern, high performance timber windows need minimal maintenance and potentially have a significantly longer life than u-PVC.

High performance, double-glazed, timber windows need not cost more than u-PVC equivalents. In the UK, the National Housing Federation and some local authorities have found u-PVC window frames to be more expensive in terms of initial capital cost and more expensive or equal to timber over the lifetime of the windows.

A new chemical-free preservative that transforms non-durable wood (poplar, spruce, eucalyptus) into a hardwood quality type of product, has won a recent environmental technology award in the Netherlands. The process involves 'scientifically cooking and baking' the wood fibres allowing mechanical properties to be maintained or even improved. The wood can also be moulded.

Reclaimed wood or local timbers can be used. In general wooden windows can last over 50 years and even after that time be renovated. Where PVC windows have to be totally replaced after 20 - 25 years.

Look out for sustainable timber

Timber is repairable, adaptable and durable. From well managed sources it is a sustainable, environmentally friendly resource. Independent certification by the Forestry Stewardship Council, should be sought as proof of acceptable forestry practices. As long as care is also taken in the choice of preservatives, paints and stains, timber windows are the best environmental choice.

Polyolefins

In Berlin, where PVC restrictions on building are in force, new polyolefin windows from a German company Helling were installed by the City Council in May 1996. In Austria, leading PVC window manufacturing company, Internorm, announced that they are developing a VC/chlorine-free plastic window frame.

PVC free packaging

Duing the past years, PVC use in packaging is declining within the EU, albeit at different rates. This is as a result of the ongoing public and scientific PVC debate as well as the developments in non-PVC plastics such as PET and PP.

The German government's position is that halogen-free plastic packaging is more environmentally friendly than chlorine containing plastics such as PVC, because of the disposal problems linked to chlorine materials (particularly incineration).

Many major European supermarket chains such as SPAR, BILLA, ADEG (Austria), IRMA (Denmark), TENGELMANN (Germany), Ica, Konsum and other Swedish supermarket chains, have totally eliminated PVC food packaging.

Others are in the process of phasing it out. For example Waitrose (UK) Migros and Co-op (Switzerland). In Japan, Ito-Yokade Co and many other supermarkets and convenience stores are eliminating PVC wrapping. Many big water bottling companies, such as all of the Nestlé owned brands, have phased out PVC water bottles. Also non-food retailers such as The Body Shop (cosmetics) and IKEA (furniture) have long ago eliminated PVC packaging.

PVC free toys

PVC is just one of many materials used to produce toys. In addition to natural materials such as textiles, non-PVC products with similar properties such as natural rubber (latex) or polypropylene/polyethylenes are widely used as an alternative to soft PVC toys, such as teethers or squeezable animals, for babies. For rigid toys, a plastic alternative for PVC would be polyolefines, but natural materials such as wood, also make good toys.

A big advantage of non-PVC soft toys is that they are free of plasticiser additives, which leach out of the toys. The documented leaching rates of phthalate plasticisers from PVC baby toys are alarmingly high.

Other PVC products

Fashion wear and furnishings

PVC, or imitation leather, is increasingly used in fashion and furnishings. Plant based natural materials such as organic cotton, sisal, jute and hemp fabrics have less of an ecological footprint, particularly if grown organically.

Similarly, bamboo, wood and other renewable materials are preferable. Non-chlorinated plastics are preferable to PVC but have their own ecological problems.

Disposable PVC Products

PVC plastic is used in a lot of short-life, disposable products. These items include inflatable and children's toys, belts, bags, food packaging, water bottles, cosmetic packaging, office equipment such as filing trays, pens, and a myriad of other things. It is difficult to tell PVC (number 3 label) from other plastics. Check before you buy any plastic product, ask the retailer for PVC-free products and seek renewable alternative materials.