In 1997, when the PVC industry convened the first World Vinyl Forum, executives were worried. Environmental pressure was mounting, customers were turning against PVC, and public opinion in Europe was increasingly negative.
Five years later, as executives sat down at their second global forum, the tone was markedly different. Something between cautious optimism and declarations of victory seemed the rule of the day.
``Perhaps to me the greatest victory ... during this five-year period is not only the survival but the continuing dominance of PVC in almost every area it was attacked,'' said Robert Brookman, vice president of business development for Teknor Apex Co. in Pawtucket, R.I. ``Clearly the processors and the consumers will not make the economic performance sacrifices necessary to satisfy a green position that is not scientifically supported.''
Speakers at the event, held Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 in Chantilly, noted that General Motors is looking again at vinyl in some interior applications, and DaimlerChrysler AG's environmental report this year did not mention PVC, the first time in several years it has not.
Industry officials touted other apparent high-profile advances: The Olympics in 2004 in Athens and 2008 in Beijing are not expected to make PVC an issue, unlike the 2000 Games in Sydney, according to the head of Europe's vinyl industry trade group.
Deselection pressures continue, including in the medical industry, and companies may not be faring well financially. But environmentally and politically, it's a much different time than when the first forum convened in Akron, Ohio.
Some participants said the turnabout had to do with PVC winning the cost and performance battles, while others credited the European vinyl makers' 10-year, 250 million euro plan to improve their environmental performance.
Five years ago, ``people from the European Commission and the European Parliament and stakeholders really were asking for phasing out PVC in many applications,'' said Jean-Pierre De Greve, executive director of the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers in Brussels, Belgium.
``It is not the case at all anymore,'' De Greve said. ``We do believe the reason is that we developed these voluntary approaches. We moved from a situation of pressure to a situation of opportunity.''
Others said that economics are playing a role.
Robert Eller, president of consulting firm Robert Eller Associates Inc. in Akron, said that the auto industry's 25 percent global overcapacity is keeping demand for cars high but prices low, and muting any push for alternative materials. GM continues to say it is pursuing its PVC-free interiors policy, but the company is now willing to consider putting PVC into skins, he said.
``We are in a period of intense cost pressure and that is the major factor that will lead to increased PVC use in automotive,'' Eller said.
Potential replacements for flexible PVC have not fared as well, either, said Brookman.
Metallocene catalysts in polyolefins have not taken off, and, in a development Brookman labeled ``striking,'' he noted that Dow Chemical Co. has pulled from the market a styrene-ethylene copolymer that had been touted as a replacement for PVC.
``They just took it off the market because they felt the growth opportunities were not sufficient to continue to go beyond the pilot stage,'' he said. ``While there has been some deselection, I don't think it's making the headway that some others thought it would.''
Industry officials said they had mounted efforts around the world to reach out to key markets, including an effort in North America to promote the material in the building and construction sector. But the most extensive efforts have been in Europe, where the pressure has been greatest.
The ECVM, for example, committed to recycling an additional 440 million pounds of post-consumer PVC a year, which amounts to 10-20 percent of the PVC waste available for recycling each year. The group also committed to emissions reductions and phasing out lead and cadmium.
De Greve said that a final European Commission decision on its long-awaited plan on dealing with PVC waste is expected in early 2003. The EC began that review before the industry made its voluntary commitment, and still has two unresolved issues: the time line for phasing out lead and the amount of recycling the industry should do.
Some EC officials want a faster phaseout than the industry's 2015 commitment for lead, but ``as far we know they are prepared to give up on this point,'' De Greve said.
On recycling, however, the dispute is more contentious. EC environmental officials would like a higher recycling target, he said.
Still, De Greve predicted that the end result of the EC's paper would be favorable: ``No ban or no request for restrictions or limits on PVC in any application.''
The German industry has also mounted its own advertising campaign targeting opinion leaders, which a speaker said was successful.
In the end, several speakers said the political efforts and market forces slowed what once looked like significant moves away from PVC. Said Irving Leveson, co-author of the industry's Vinyl 2020 economic report: ``Deselecting and encouraging consumers not to use vinyl has not had any kind of major impact.''