If there was a buzzword at the World Vinyl Forum 2, it was sustainability.
It was the topic du jour at several panels during the forum, which brought together vinyl industry leaders from around the world. Speakers of all stripes said sustainability will be an important part of the industry's agenda in the future. But scratch beneath the surface, and you find opinion split on what they actually mean by that.
Some said it means the industry should promote its role developing sustainable infrastructure and fighting poverty, such as emphasizing that PVC pipes last much longer than most competitors and help keep water supplies clean. Some note that vinyl can argue it's more sustainable than other plastics because it's less dependent on fossil fuels as a raw material.
In that view, a renewed emphasis on sustainability is mainly an opportunity for the vinyl industry.
But others said the industry really can't argue that it's sustainable unless it takes more responsibility. In that view, it means the industry should do more to see that its products are recycled, that its emissions are reduced, that potentially hazardous stabilizers are removed and that its operations and product life cycle are carbon neutral. In short, that its current operations are as little of a burden on future generations as possible.
Irving Leveson, an economist and co-author of the industry's Vinyl 2020 report, sees it mainly as an opportunity.
He told the attendees at the Oct. 31-Nov. 1 event that one of the most important things for the vinyl industry is the changing thinking about economic development and environmental protection. He pointed to a recent conference of governments on sustainable development.
``What came out was a growing recognition pushed by the United States but recognized by other countries and groups in varying degrees, that economic development and environmental protection are complementary, rather than trade-offs,'' said Leveson, who heads Forecastcenter.com, a Jackson, N.J., consulting firm.
``The industry has a special opportunity to position itself as part of the solution to world development, combining environmental and health with improvements in economic growth,'' he said.
Bob Walker, executive director of the Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association, said that the PVC pipe industry needs to keep making its case that since its products are recyclable and last several times longer than metal pipes in the water system, the material is inherently more sustainable.
But others said the industry should not be so fast to raise a sustainability banner.
Mark Everard, director of science with the Natural Step, a Cheltenham, England, consulting firm specializing in sustainability issues, said that the industry, like all industries, has a ``sustainability gap.''
Everard said in an interview after his speech that his thinking has evolved on PVC, from a more simplistic assessment of the material as bad to recognizing its long life can have significant advantages. What matters more is how a material is used, rather than blanket labeling as good or bad, he said.
Still, he said, some of the forum's presentations ``ignored the fact that there is a big picture'' that raises questions about the long-term sustainability of industrial economies.
``In the face of the fact that the world population is booming whilst resources are absolutely dwindling, we simply have to do more with less,'' he said.
Everard, whose group was paid an undisclosed amount of money by the PVC industry in the United Kingdom to analyze its sustainability practices, said a key area needing work is recycling.
The PVC industry in Europe recycled about 220 million pounds of post-consumer material in 1997, out of about 3.5 billion pounds that could have been collected for recycling. More up-to-date figures are not available.
The industry has committed to recycling an additional 440 million pounds by 2010, said Eric Breny, marketing and business manager for Solvay's Vinyloop recycling program in Brussels, Belgium. ``The target is ambitious but prudent,'' he said.
By contrast, according to industry figures, only about 20 million pounds of post-consumer vinyl were recycled in the United States in 1997. Vinyloop is a mechanical recycling technology developed to try to boost European waste recovery.
Breny said Vinyloop will be economical, if it is able to capture vinyl from fairly high-value products like cable and windows and recycle it back into those products. Post-consumer vinyl recycling is tricky because the material has many different formulations, he said.
They have hopes of turning a profit, he said.
``We are, I would say, reasonably optimistic,'' he said. ``I wouldn't say it is a gold mine.''
That additional recycling will come with a price. The European industry is paying about 25 million euros a year over 10 years to implement its environmental program, which includes recycling, cutting emissions and phasing out lead and cadmium. Australia's vinyl industry also is looking at its own environmental commitment.
Jean-Pierre De Greve, executive director of the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers in Brussels, said all industries, including vinyl, have a ``sustainability gap.''
The European Comission is expected to come out with its decision on the PVC industry's self-imposed environmental program sometime in early 2003.
The EC began studying PVC before the industry adopted its voluntary effort, and has two chief concerns with industry's plan - whether lead should be phased out more quickly than the industry wants, and whether the commitments for recycling are strong enough.
De Greve predicted the lead issue will be resolved relatively easily: ``As far as we know, [the EC is] prepared to give up on this point.''
But recycling is likely to be more contentious because the European Commission's environmental officials want a larger commitment, De Greve said.
The commission's decision is going to be a positive one for the industry, however, because of what it won't have, De Greve said: ``No ban or no request for restrictions or limits of PVC in any application. This is very important.''
Still, he said, the PVC industry around the world must do more to make itself more sustainable.
``At a global level we need to make progress,'' said De Greve, speaking in an interview after his presentation. ``I do believe that heavy-metal stabilizers are not part of the PVC industry. I do believe that everywhere, even in the U.S., where landfills are much more available than in Europe, recycling will be a key part of sustainability.''