Plastic icebergs: Navigating the PVC conundrum

Radical Industrialists

Plastic icebergs: Navigating the PVC conundrum

If your company sails under the sustainability flag long enough and makes enough bold public commitments, you are bound to hit an iceberg sooner or later, where the public nature of your commitment and brand strength combine to make it that much harder to navigate your way out of a controversy. Interface, with the tremendous benefit of Ray Anderson’s years of eco-evangelism from the CEO suite, had quite a head of steam when we hit rough waters in the mid-2000s.

The reverberating crunch that we heard was rising stakeholder concern over the use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC, or vinyl) in building products, including in the backing material of our U.S. carpet tiles. In the space of a few years, we went from some customers and thought leaders thinking of us as the only company that truly “got it” on sustainability to a company that refused to “get it” about PVC.

Ten years into our sustainability journey, how could we find ourselves so out of step with some of our biggest supporters?

The first part of the answer has to do with the specific tools we were using to make decisions. In a flurry of work in the late ‘90s, we developed our own Restricted Substances List to eliminate potentially hazardous process chemicals and additives such as solvents and flame retardants. PVC made it through this screening because it is not toxic or hazardous in our factory or in our product, and we do not use toxic or heavy-metal additives. In contrast, our polyurethane carpet backing (a PVC-free, non-recyclable alternative) raised concerns because its manufacturing process requires us to store and react several regulated chemicals in the factory. So, why the big fuss over PVC?

Vinyl is the plastic environmentalists love to hate because of its life-cycle toxicity issues, which occur both upstream (emissions from plastic production) and downstream (if it gets burned under uncontrolled conditions). In addition, PVC always contains other chemical additives, some of which (e.g., heavy-metal stabilizers) may be quite toxic. While our Restricted Substances List adequately screens out toxic additives, it is not designed to account for these life-cycle toxicity issues.

As an early champion of lifecycle assessment (LCA), we were confident that we had a tool to account for the life-cycle of PVC. And while LCA has proven to be a reliable tool for more holistic decision-making, especially for considering carbon footprint or water impacts, it is notoriously weak at evaluating human health impacts like toxicity.

Even with robust life-cycle toxicity data (such as the chlorinated emissions from a PVC supplier), plotting it in a graph next to greenhouse gas emissions is scientifically meaningless and emotionally explosive, given that potential health impacts are far more personal and comprehensible.

We were about to learn this lesson the hard way. As a pioneer in sustainable business, we had become accustomed to educating others on sustainability and didn’t recognize that our data-driven approach to explaining our continued use of PVC failed to address the more personal questions around human health impacts. Small wonder our LCA graphs, showing a smaller environmental footprint of PVC relative to other common carpet tile backings, were not always well received.

The dynamic evolved into one that could be described as a mutual feeling of betrayal with some of our most sophisticated customers and allies in the green building community. They couldn’t believe that Interface, a company they respected or even loved, would continue using PVC, while we couldn’t believe they would question our commitment to sustainability over this issue, given our overall leadership.

It wasn’t until 2008 that Interface began to shift from defending our use of PVC to listening and openly acknowledging the problems with the PVC life-cycle.

Through a series of internal and external discussions, we began to understand that we weren’t hitting a new iceberg at all —only a new tip of the same gigantic iceberg lurking beneath the surface of our entire industrial system, the same iceberg that forced our mid-course correction in 1994. In other words, the human health risks of PVC’s life-cycle are yet another devastating aspect of the industrial system we committed to reinvent.

Once we acknowledged that, the first order of business was to make it clear to stakeholders that our 2020 Mission Zero and Off Oil pledge included eliminating our use of virgin PVC. But what material could we use instead?

The more you know about our industrial materials ecosystem, the more you realize that there is no silver bullet — no perfect material to switch to — because it’s a problem of scale. We passionately believe that we would betray our sustainability mission if we “solved” this problem by simply switching to another petroleum-based plastic that ties our future to more tar sands, Deepwater Horizon oil disasters, or oil refinery emissions.

In our current system, placing an order for a million pounds of virgin plastic is easy and affordable because we leverage the established and subsidized infrastructure of oil extraction, refining, and compounding. Ordering a new kind of PVC-free virgin plastic would be easy for the same reason. Escaping this oil-dependent system, however, is hard, because it means reinventing our supply chain and bringing a separate infrastructure to scale that can harvest, process and remanufacture sustainable, closed-loop materials.

Our serious investment in reinventing our industrial infrastructure began ten years ago when Interface bet the future of the company on a multi-year, multi-million-dollar technology development project dubbed “Cool Blue” that now turns old carpet tile backing into new carpet tile backing in a low-energy, non-toxic process. Taking a cue from nature, Cool Blue was designed to be multi-functional and make carpet tile backing out of any type of thermoplastic, not solely vinyl waste streams.

Today our GlasBac RE carpet tile backing contains no virgin petrochemical ingredients, about 13 percent recycled PVC, and 98 percent total recycled content, primarily from old carpet tile and our own manufacturing scrap. Currently, about 20 percent of Interface’s U.S. carpet-tile production is made on this recycled backing and we plan to increase this production dramatically now that the technology is established.

We are committed to eliminating virgin PVC from all our products by 2020, but not recycled PVC. Vinyl-backed carpet tile has been the industry standard since 1973, so eliminating recycled PVC from our backing options would mean abandoning millions of tons of installed product to the landfill or incinerator. The abundance of this waste stream and our responsibility for our old products means we plan to maintain recycled PVC as a backing option, even as we phase out virgin PVC and continue to develop alternative backing materials.

This is certainly a more complicated approach than announcing a new “PVC-free” product, and for years we felt our story was falling on deaf ears. But as we began to listen more to our stakeholders, they responded positively. This, combined with our shift to transparently sharing our ingredients and strategies, has begun to rebuild our relationships with those we had alienated. (For a full list of our product ingredients, please visit www.pharosproject.net or www.interfaceflor.com/epd; EPDs disclose all ingredients that are 1 percent or greater by mass).

We now see that the stakeholders who are concerned about PVC are the same people who care most deeply about creating a sustainable future. We want them to be asking more and harder questions, and we have no interest in convincing them that PVC is okay. PVC is not okay, and neither are any of the other virgin raw materials we use at an industrial scale today.

Grappling with PVC has taught us that our sustainability reputation is not unsinkable. We learned that in trying to win an argument, it is possible to lose something even more important: the input and insights from our stakeholders, even (or especially) from those who may passionately disagree with us. This lesson translates to many aspects of our business well beyond our PVC conundrum.

We also learned that PVC represents the tip of a much larger iceberg toward which humanity is steaming: the endemic toxicity and unsustainability lurking below the surface of our entire industrial system. A catastrophic collision awaits us if we fail to change course in time.

Simply adding new materials into the existing system will not change our course. A new course requires rebuilding our industrial infrastructure to support a safe and efficient closed-loop materials economy. This is the work of reinvention that Interface has begun, and we have learned, sometimes the hard way, that we cannot succeed alone.