BOSTON — Speakers at a recent building materials seminar in Boston gave plenty of reasons why contractors, architects and processors should move away from PVC as a building material, but they weren't so clear on exactly how that should be done.
PVC's acceptance in the construction market has gone mostly unchallenged, as about two-thirds of North America's 14 billion pounds of annual PVC production is sold into that segment.
Negative publicity concerning alleged health risks surrounding PVC use in athletic shoes and children's toys has hurt the industry's image, but has done nothing to slow its sales into the construction market.
Through August, North American PVC sales into the siding market had climbed more than 17 percent, while sales into extruded windows and doors had climbed almost 12 percent. All this in a year when PVC makers have been crushed by declining prices and profitability linked to overcapacity and depressed Asian markets.
But most speakers at the Nov. 10 seminar, sponsored by the University of Massachusetts-Lowell's Center for Sustainable Production, saw PVC as a vulnerable giant and hammered away at its reputation.
Greenpeace's Charlie Cray outlined the environmental group's concerns about PVC's alleged effects on health and the environment, while author Deborah Wallace and James Melius, director of a New York-based labor trust fund, claimed PVC building materials worsened fires at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas and at a plastic foam recycling center in Hamilton, Ontario.
Leaping to the vinyl industry's defense was Mark Sofman, industry affairs manager for the Vinyl Institute in Morristown, N.J.
``I didn't come here to waste time rebutting every claim, but when you look at the success of the marketplace, you can see vinyl does add value to people's lives,'' Sofman said. ``The vinyl industry is interested in the concept of sustainability, but you need to have the right information to make an informed decision about it.''
Lowell Center director Ken Geiser agreed that it's important to get the concept of sustainability out to the industry.
``The big thing is, are there alternatives to PVC?'' said Geiser, whose 4-year-old center argues that industrial production can be both environmentally sound and economically beneficial.
``There's been more of a market shift [away from PVC] in Europe than in the U.S.,'' Geiser said. ``But if you're concerned about the environmental or health aspects of PVC, you'd hope to have access to a large range of other products.''
Recent PVC bans in the U.S. already have affected industrial mind-sets, said Steve McCarthy, a professor in UMass-Lowell's engineering department, who holds patents for biodegradable polymers made with polylactic acid.
``I think manufacturers are more concerned,'' McCarthy said. ``Before, people didn't even think about PVC being in their shoes. But now the market's shifting and U.S. companies that want to sell into the European market will have to have a higher level of consciousness.''
An executive with a PVC additives supplier said he didn't agree with some of the statements speakers made about PVC's alleged health risks.
``If you look at the numbers, dioxin levels have gone down while PVC use has gone up,'' he said. ``Here today, [material selection] is based on emotion, but in the market it's based on functionality and cost performance. In pipe and siding, you can't beat PVC.''
Other attendees, such as John DeCost, senior regional manager with GenFlex roofing systems in Wakefield, Mass., said they weren't sure if alternative materials could compete with PVC on a price/performance level.
GenFlex is a division of GenCorp, a Fairlawn, Ohio, firm which ranked 37th in Plastics News 1998 ranking of North American film and sheet manufacturers.
Apart from the us-vs.-them rhetoric, some speakers and attendees offered practical examples of PVC replacements.
In Washington, the Environmental Protection Agency's new headquarters will be mostly vinyl-free. The project, to be completed in 2002, will cover 2.5 million square feet in five new buildings and parts of two others.
``We didn't just avoid PVC because the EPA said so,'' said Andrew Fuston, an associate with Gruzen Sampton, the New York architectural and interior design firm that's overseeing the project. ``In a lot of cases, we just didn't think it was an appropriate material.''
Gruzen Sampton opted for wood furniture, linoleum flooring, marble chip shelving and polypropylene upholstery. The buildings' carpeting, however, will have PVC backing.
The materials used in place of PVC are 30-50 percent more expensive, but they offer increased performance in most cases, Fuston said. He said prices for alternative materials have been decreasing in recent years as they grow in use and acceptance.
``There were environmental considerations,'' Fuston said. ``But the aesthetics simply favored [non-PVC materials].''
Scott Rosencrans, a carpenter with Skyview Construction of Ann Arbor, Mich., said he encourages his clients to consider non-PVC building materials because he has seen PVC become brittle and warped over time.
But finding PVC alternatives isn't always easy. Rosencrans said he was unable to meet recent customer requests for halogen-free electrical cable.
Rosencrans added his customers now sometimes ask him about non-PVC materials even before he mentions it to them.
``As a builder, there's an amazing amount of trust that people place in you,'' Rosencrans said. ``There seems to be more of a question about whether vinyl is the best way to go.''
By the end of the day, there was a real need for an accurate appraisal of the gap between conceptual PVC alternatives and cold market reality.
That task fell to David Adler, a roofing industry consultant based in North Falmouth, Mass.
``As much as companies want to be in the `green' field, they have to look at it with a more realistic point of view than we've heard here today,'' Adler said. ``I can give you a list of 10 products that were well-planned and well-researched that didn't work, and the homeowner took it in the neck every time.
``It's a question of who's going to pay the bill.''