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SAN ANTONIO—The Western European PVC industry faces intense challenges, but it also is seeing healthy growth and searching for new applications, according to the planning manager of a major European manufacturer.

John Holton of Brussels, Belgium-based European Vinyls Corp. said PVC consumption in Western Europe is still on track to increase at a 1.5 percent annual rate through 2000. That growth is expected in spite of a year of negative publicity resulting from an April 1996 airport fire in Dusseldorf, Germany, that resulted in 17 deaths.

Preliminary reports indicated fumes from melting PVC wires and cables played a role in the deaths, but Holton said a recent report commissioned by the German government clears the PVC industry of any responsibility.

The report instead blames disregard of fire safety rules and fumes from aluminum-coated polystyrene panels that were used as heat insulation in the ceiling of the 26-year-old building.

Investigators decided there was no reliable way to determine if PVC cables would have caused the fire to spread without the support of the burning PS foam.

Environmental organizations, including Greenpeace, used the fire to back up calls for a PVC ban. But, the report concludes there is no need to ban PVC cables in Germany, although it does recommend further research in the area.

``We suffered a year of abuse to be completely exonerated,'' Holton said during a presentation at Flexpo '97 in San Antonio. ``A lot of the debate was based on emotion, and emotion is a difficult thing to counteract.''

Holton added that the industry plans to launch a public relations campaign later this month to capitalize on the government report clearing PVC's name.

According to Holton, claims made against PVC by environmental groups do not seem to have the impact they once did.

``If the fire would have happened five years ago, we would have seen major banning of PVC all across Germany, but we didn't see that this time,'' Holton said. ``I think the media is becoming more skeptical of environmentalist claims and not just splashing them on the front page.''

But image is only one hurdle Western European PVC makers have had to overcome lately. Price undercutting from burgeoning markets in Eastern Europe and the looming shadow of superior metallocene PE technology also have made things interesting in the PVC market.

Rapidly developing free markets in formerly communist nations, such as Poland, Hungary and Romania, led to an influx of low-priced PVC.

Holton said the situation is leveling off somewhat now, but Eastern Europe has been ``a thorn in the side'' of its Western competition for a while.

The threat of metallocene-catalyzed polyethylenes remains, but Holton is confident PVC's benefits still place it ahead in many practical applications.

Rick Smith, vinyls director for Houston's CMAI Inc. consulting firm, also pointed out PVC's cost advantage.

``If polyethylene prices were to drop 25 percent and PVC were to climb 100 percent, PVC would still have the raw material cost advantage,'' Smith said in a Flexpo panel discussion.

Holton singled out cling films and medical film and tubing as growth areas for flexible PVC. He also cited the potential of a low-cost housing system manufactured by Woodbridge, Ontario-based Royal Group Technologies Ltd. The housing is constructed largely of PVC.

Holton was upbeat when discussing PVC's attempts to ward off its competitors.

``If you believe PVC is sitting there, waiting to be picked off, you're dreaming,'' he said. ``It's a moving target.''