14 June 2004 00:01 [Source: ICB Americas]
European polyvinyl chloride (PVC) producers were given a boost last week by the conclusions of a European Union (EU) report that brightened their tarnished environmental image. The report was published during what appears likely to be one of the best years for the European PVC industry for some time, at least in terms of pricing and demand.
The polymer, which is well entrenched in Europe in two main segments—window profiles and pipes—is likely to be strengthened by the report, which decided that on the basis of life cycle assessments (LCAs), PVC is as good a material as any other.
“Overall, this report is good news for PVC producers because it finds that in its key applications, PVC is environmentally no worse than other materials,” says Stephen Harriman of Harriman Chemsult, London. “In respect to its environmental reputation among polymers, PVC does not seem any longer to be quite so isolated. Now it can take even more advantage of the fact that in the markets where it is strong like windows and pipes, it is the best for the job in terms of performance.”
Environmental groups still say that action needs to be taken to phase out PVC in certain applications. But, they may have a harder task persuading governments and PVC users to switch to alternative materials.
Jean-Pierre De Greve, secretary general of 2010 Vinyl, the trade association representing European PVC producers, additives suppliers and converters, declared that his group was “very happy about the conclusions” of the report. However, he was disappointed that it did not also stress that “decision making should always take into account the social and economic aspects of a material and its applications in order to move away from a purely environmental focus.”
The report, arranged by the European Commission, the EU executive, focused on previously published LCAs of PVC and competing materials. It was carried out by academic institutions and consultants, and coordinated by the environmental research company PE Europe GmbH of Germany.
Years ago, the European Parliament asked the Commission for an LCA study with the long-term objective of finding substitutes for PVC.
The main conclusion of the report is that LCA comparisons should be made at the application level rather than the material level, so a comprehensive picture emerges of the environmental impact over the full life cycle.
“Even if a material has less environmental impact during production, it is not necessarily environmentally favorable,” says the report.
“Furthermore, advanced materials with a greater environmental impact in the production phase can have a much lower impact in the use phase due to [factors like] less weight, longer durability, lower maintenance frequency and lower thermal conductivity,” the report notes.
For windows, the report found that LCAs show no advantage for aluminum or wood, the main materials that compete against PVC.
“It appears that the most promising potential for lowering environmental impacts of windows is expected to be through the optimization of the design and specific construction process,” the report says. “[This] means increasing the quality of the windows with respect to their main function of saving heating energy in the use phase—e.g., by lowering the specific heat loss. Therefore, the choice of material is of rather minor importance.”
With regard to pipes, the report points out that some LCA studies see clear advantages for concrete and fiber cement pipes, while others perceive obvious benefits for PVC, polyethylene and other polymer pipes, and still other LCAs conclude that the material plays no role as long as it is not cast iron.
However, most studies exclude the digging, laying, installation and maintenance of pipes, which would favor PVC because of its relatively low weight and long durability.
Compared to bitumen systems in roofing applications, PVC and other polymers have lower environmental impacts because they are not as heavy, according to the report.
PVC producers want the Euro-pean Commission to accelerate the development of an EU policy on PVC. The Commission decided five years ago that a Europe-wide strategy on PVC is needed because of concerns about the material’s environmental compatibility.
“Before finalizing the strategy, the Commission wanted to carry out a number of studies and publish a Green Paper for public consultation,” explains Martyn Griffiths, VBinyl 2010’s communications manager. “This LCA study is the last step before the Com-mission issues its policy document, and there seems to be no reason why it should be delayed any longer.”
Last week, Greenpeace called on the Commission to promote alternative materials to PVC in light of the LCA report. Greenpeace says the report “clearly” shows that alternative materials are environmentally preferable to PVC in many applications.
“Comprehensive legislation is required to address the environmental problems inherent in the production, use and disposal of PVC,” the environmental group says in a statement. “Instead of looking for justifications to keep PVC on the market, the Commission should be seeking substitution of all PVC applications when-ever safer alternatives are available.”
However, Greenpeace is thought to be out of step with many other environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Europe, which are now shifting their attention away from PVC and other individual materials.
Instead, they are concentrating on the registration, evaluation and authorization of chemicals (REACH) proposals of the Commission. These are currently going through the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, which represents the governments of EU member states.
“The NGOs are looking more at chemicals in general instead of targeting PVC,” says Mr. Griffiths. “After the LCA report, this approach is likely to continue. From the point of view of environmental policy, things are looking promising for PVC.”
Meanwhile, PVC’s output in Eu-rope has risen by 4 percent in the first half of this year, according to Harriman Chemsult. The increase had been driven by stronger demand, particularly in Eastern Europe, and low inventories among converters.
Higher demand has helped push up PVC prices by about 15 percent since late last year. The improved market conditions contrast with the first half of 2003, when prices of suspension PVC fell by over 25 percent. Sales volumes in 2003 were flat.
“The sector is doing well after going through a poor patch,” says Mr. Harriman. “Demand for window profiles is excellent, especially because of growing sales in Eastern Europe.”
Now PVC producers are pushing for further price increases before the usual slowdown in demand during the summer. Prices for suspension PVC could reach close to €900 ($1,107) per metric ton, compared to slightly less than €700 in January.
“We need higher prices because the rising cost of chlorine and ethylene is affecting our margins,” says a marketing manager at one German PVC producer.
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