Companies that manufacture and distribute vinyl products are putting more pressure on resin producers to help in their battle to ``prove'' that their products are green in the emerging era of sustainability.
With the industry gathered in Boston for the World Vinyl Forum, several manufacturers urged resin producers to help develop independent third-party life-cycle analyses to assess the cradle-to-grave impact of vinyl products on the environment.
During a networking event, Rex German, president of Nebraska Plastics Inc. in Kozad, Neb., suggested to a resin producer that the company certify its resin as green to help manufacturers like his firm certify their products as green. Nebraska Plastics makes vinyl decking, railing, fencing and lawn and garden products.
Rich Ruhlin, vice president of health-care development for Mats Inc., a distributor of commercial matting and flooring in Stoughton, Mass., used a similar opportunity to urge a resin supplier to help in the life-cycle-analysis work needed for products to be viewed as green. Increasingly, he said, sustainability is a critical element in whether its products are installed in new and existing buildings.
The issue played prominently for many speakers at the forum.
``If we don't fight for our products, who will?'' asked Brian Whelan, president and chief executive officer of vinyl roofing manufacturer Sika Sarnafil Inc. in Canton, Mass., and an active member of the year-old Vinyl Promotion Network.
VPN is an informal group of vinyl fabricators and others in the vinyl supply chain that are working to share information, promote the benefits of vinyl products, and speak in one voice to address issues that affect fabricators.
``You need to be a leader in your company,'' Whelan said. ``You need to look for ways to educate your customers about the benefits of the material and not just the products. You need to think about who influences your customers and try and reach them and educate them.''
Whelan was among several speakers urging companies and the industry to build independent, third-party research about the sustainability of vinyl.
``The durability of PVC products are seen both as a strength and a threat because of its threatened persistence in the environment,'' said Jean-Pierre De Greve, executive director of the Council of Vinyl Manufacturers and chair of the Global Vinyl Council.
``We need to address the issue of the impact of PVC on the climate compared to alternative materials, to ensure a future for our business,'' De Greve said.
``The whole industry needs to work together with all stakeholders to achieve the objective of explaining and proving the sustainable use of PVC,'' said Noreen Thomas, an investigator with VinylSum, a network of researchers working to improve the sustainable use of PVC. It is based at the Institute of Polymer Technology and Materials Engineering at Loughborough University in Loughborough, England, where Thomas is a senior lecturer in polymer technology.
``We are currently developing an approach for a full evaluation of sustainability, so users of PVC can look at the entire environmental footprint of their materials,'' she said.
But the challenge has pitfalls.
The reason? A complete life-cycle analysis requires data from every stage of the process - from the extraction of raw materials from the ground (or the planting of seeds for wood and bio-based products) to the processes used to make the raw materials and products, transportation analysis, energy use, disposal costs and potential environmental impacts.
In addition, it needs to be done in a way so that a material or a product - whether it is made from PVC or another plastic - can be compared with materials and products designed for the same application.
``The inconsistency and the collection of data is the greatest obstacle to overcome,'' said Nigel Howard, former vice president of the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington. Howard was responsible for developing and implementing the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system.
``How do we make sure that life-cycle analysis is done consistently'' from material to material, product to product, company to company and industry to industry, said Howard, who now is a business development manager for Branz Ltd., a building and construction consulting and research firm in Porirua City, New Zealand.
``We need an agreed-upon methodology with all industry sectors and within academic and research circles,'' he said. A case in point: bio-based materials.
``We have to decide whether we assess the impact of bio-based materials from the time you plant the seed or when you harvest the material. A lot of these issues are still too vague if we want to achieve a consistent [life-cycle analysis],'' Howard said.
Additionally, too many companies take a narrow view from their single perspective, he said. ``Everything needs to be assessed and examined across the full life cycle,'' said Howard. ``You get the wrong answer if you only measure inside your factory walls.
``We must engage the entire industry,'' he said. ``Everyone involved in the life cycle must supply data or the whole thing won't work.''
Howard added: ``We are doomed unless we move quickly to become sustainable [and] green'' in the eyes of the public. ``Green has become a marketing issue and that has swamped good science.''
Kiyoshi Ueno, a program adviser with United Nations University in Tokyo and a former Mitsubishi executive, said companies worldwide need to step forward.
``Europe, the U.S., Japan and Korea must play a bigger role in spreading accurate information on PVC,'' he said. ``Leading enterprises need to discuss the positive contribution of PVC to the environment.''
But how to do that remains problematic, particularly in dealing with new media, such as information on blogs, Web sites and in chat rooms, said Irving Leveson, president of ForecastCenter.com, a Jackson, N.J., consulting firm.
``If you are looking at going to places like MySpace and others, don't expect to generate positive chatter,'' he said. ``Putting yourself out front can make you more of a target. Try to answer misinformation in blogs and chat rooms carefully.''
However, Ann Wallin, sustainable chemistry director for Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich., disagreed.
``By speaking up, I think you get a lot of credit and goodwill,'' with nongovernmental organizations, she said.