PVC is replacing traditional building materials such as wood, concrete and metals in many applications.
Versatility, cost effectiveness and an excellent record of use mean it remains the most important polymer for the construction sector, which accounted for more than 60 per cent of European PVC production in 2011. Substitution of PVC by other materials on environmental grounds would require additional research without proven technical benefits and at a higher cost. For example, as part of a housing renovation project at Bielefeld in Germany, it has been estimated that the replacement of PVC by other materials would lead to a cost increase of approximately 2,250 euro for an average sized apartment.
PVC, wood and aluminium are the main materials used to produce window frames. The British Fenestration Council rates windows sold on the UK market according to their energy saving performance. PVC is the dominant material in the top class (A), and the proportion of PVC in this top class is much higher than in the lower classes, indicating that the dominance is not merely due to a high market share, but also to the excellent insulating properties of PVC window frames.
Academic study 1
The environmental aspects of the use of PVC in building products, The Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), June 1996, updated April 2001.
This review of world-wide scientific research on PVC in building material was first produced in 1996 and then updated and expanded initially in 1998 and then in 2001 so that subsequent new research could be evaluated. The report concluded that the adverse environmental effects of using PVC in building products do not appear to be greater than for other materials.
Academic study 2
PVC Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), Entec UK and Ecobalance UK, 2001.
An environmental comparison of PVC and several substitute materials performed for the UK environment ministry, the LCA concluded that the life cycle impacts of PVC are not significantly higher than those of alternatives.
The study compared PVC and other materials in several applications and confirmed that there are relative differences in environmental performance based on application, but PVC does not fare substantially worse than any of the other materials tested.
Academic study 3
PVC and Sustainability – system stability as a yardstick, selected product systems compared. Prognos AG (1999), published by and available at AGPU. In a series of extensive workshops over a period of 30 months, experts from German PVC producers and converters conducted an extensive dialogue with scientists, NGOs and journalists. The results, known as the Prognos Study, assessed the contribution of four PVC products to sustainable development by evaluating their ecological, social and economic impact. PVC pipes, windows and cables proved to have good short and medium term potential for sustainable development, while special applications of PVC rigid films showed favourable short and long-term prospects.
The results of the Prognos Study highlight areas for the industry to focus on in their efforts to achieve the long-term sustainability of PVC products. The experts recommended a strategy for all of the product groups investigated to the PVC industry that attempts to maintain the short and medium term market position by means of continual improvement. For example, by reducing weight, increasing heat insulation and increasing recycling for PVC window frames. However, Prognos stressed that it was difficult to take long-term investment decisions as the relevance of future risks remains uncertain.