About a year ago, General Motors Corp. challenged its interior-parts suppliers to find alternatives to PVC. Everyone has been looking, but it doesn´t seem like they´re much closer to finding the right replacement.
If the situation doesn´t change soon, GM may have to put its cards on the table and show its suppliers just how serious it is about the issue.
Other end-market manufacturers will be watching, especially in the medical industry.
Plastics processors at a recent Society of Plastics Engineers conference in Dearborn, Mich., complained that the current generation of thermoplastic olefins — the material with the inside track to replace PVC in auto interiors — still can´t compete on key points including feel, appearance and cost. Others at the event also said that most auto-parts suppliers don´t have the right processing technologies to make consumer-pleasing, all-TPO interiors.
Processors have lots of dollars and years of experience invested in PVC. It´s going to be tough for another material suddenly to beat the longtime standard.
We have no doubt that TPOs could meet the auto industry´s performance standards, especially with recent improvements in catalyst technology. But getting it done on a deadline, and at a price that´s competitive with PVC, may be a stretch.
When GM strongly encouraged this materials minirevolution, the company was careful to emphasize, at least publicly, that the exercise was based on performance criteria. Fogging and cracking — not recyclability or safety — were the issues that GM cited.
That may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but as the deadline approaches — GM said no more PVC in new car interiors beginning in 2004 — the company faces some tough decisions. Will GM accept a product that consumers don´t like just to get away from PVC? What if new materials can match PVC´s performance, but at a higher cost?
The cost vs. performance issue, with the unspoken but obvious environmental backdrop, is shaping up as an interesting prizefight. And it´s one that we can expect to see repeated frequently this decade, by other automakers, medical device manufacturers, and possibly toymakers and packagers.
We´d be happy to see the fight judged purely on the merits of the materials. But at this point, we´re willing to bet that emotional reactions somehow will influence the decision.