It was heartening for those of us in the vinyl industry to see the article in WAW's July issue, "A second look at vinyl," which described many of the benefits that vinyl products bring to the automotive market. In recent years, there has been much discussion that the use of vinyl in cars has become passe - especially in some of the high-profile, "glamour" applications, such as upholstery. As the article clearly demonstrates, the benefits vinyl originally brought to those applications are being rediscovered. And in many other applications - most notably, under-the-hood uses - vinyl continues to offer a combination of properties few other materials can match.
It is just as interesting to note the efforts currently under way to characterize vinyl as environmentally undesirable. No doubt many readers of Ward's are aware of the attempts, primarily being orchestrated by Greenpeace, to replace vinyl with other materials considered more environmentally friendly. Drew Winter correctly notes that those attempts are based on Greenpeace's desire to eliminate the use of chlorine-based materials in automotive. The irony of that approach is that it overlooks the huge dependence automotive manufacturing has on chlorine - everything from steel processing and gasoline refining to tire production and paint formulation. The most basic products, such as antifreeze and transmission fluid - even computer chips - depend on chlorine.
But less well-known is the fact that many polymers other than vinyl are chlorine-dependent, including nylon, polyurethane, propylene oxide and polysulfone, as well as neoprene and epoxy resins.
The attacks on vinyl typically include a number of allegations - all of which can be refuted with sound science. Because vinyl has been on the market for more than 50 years (one of the first uses was as a rubber replacement for shock-absorber seals), it's also one of the most thoroughly tested and researched materials used today. For instance, we know from extensive research that incinerating vinyl products has no impact on the amount of dioxin generated by incinerators. That fact recently was confirmed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the sponsor of a study analyzing more than 1,700 test results from 155 large-scale, commercial incinerators around the world. Incinerator design and operating temperatures, not vinyl, are the critical factors in dioxin generation, ASME found.
We also know, from a characterization program we currently are conducting in conjunction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that there are no measurable levels of residual dioxin in products such as PVC pipe, vinyl bottles and packaging resin. Those results are part of a larger testing program that will, over the next year or so, carefully examine the entire vinyl production process for dioxin emissions. Results so far, which have been provided to EPA as part of its dioxin reassessment process, indicate that the vinyl industry likely contributes less than 1% to dioxin emissions in the U.S.
Much attention in the automotive market is now focused on designing for disassembly. As Ward's readers know, plastic materials in general still have a way to go before a solid infrastructure for automotive plastics recycling is in place. We are heartened, however, by the demand for recycled vinyl and are working with groups like the American Plastics Council to develop practical approaches for recovering and recycling products such as automotive upholstery and wire harnesses. At the same time, a number of companies, such as Parma Plastics Inc. of Guelph, Ont., and Waxman Industries of Hamilton, Ont., are recycling vinyl from other sources into dashboards, sound-deadening panels, mud flaps and floor mats, helping automakers achieve their recycled-content rate objectives.
Likewise, we have heard in recent years of the moves among European carmakers to deselect vinyl, or to make a "PVC-free" car for environmental reasons. In fact, the motivation behind these moves often has turned out to be as much driven by a desire for publicity as concern for the environment. Meanwhile, many more automakers remain committed to the use of vinyl for very solid, performance-based reasons. For example, in the highest-profile new car launch since the original Taurus,chose vinyl for its European Mondeo and U.S. Contour/Mystique models because of cost/performance and global availability. NedCar (the Netherlands producer for Volvo) recently completed a life-cycle analysis of vinyl and several other materials for underbody coatings and decided vinyl was the best choice for the environment.
In truth, design specifications in the automotive market are as dynamic as they are in any other industry. In any given model year, it's likely that vinyl will lose out for a specific component simply because it's been out-priced or out-performed by a competitive material. At the same time, as the profile on automotive upholstery points out, vinyl likely will win in other uses for exactly the same reason. This is precisely how the marketplace should operate. And we in the vinyl industry embrace that competition because we firmly believe when all the factors are weighed equally and fairly - including the environmental factors - vinyl provides value few other materials can match.