As flooring, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – or vinyl as it is better known – is an incredibly versatile material which comes with a long list of benefits.
Yet it often cops a bad wrap. In the past this was mainly to do with questions of its environmental impact and perceptions of aesthetic inferiority. But as many specifiers have discovered in recent years, all of these things are being addressed, both by materials technologies and through initiatives like the Vinyl Council’s Product Stewardship Program and the Green Star Best Environmental Practice guidelines for PVC.
As vinyl’s advocates point out, besides the excellent performance-to-cost ratio, there’s its ease to keep clean, the fact it will not harbour bacteria, its chemical and fire resistance, dimensional stability and the fact it can now be recycled.
Manufactured in roll, tile and plank form, products range from the easy DIY residential solution through to technically advanced solutions for laboratories, hospitals, shops and multi purpose venues. Its long life, hard wearing durability attributes make it particularly suitable where the flooring will be subject to a punishing environment.
No wonder the product ranges are growing quickly, as suppliers continue to innovate, delivering colours and designs that reflect the latest trends.
Many vinyl flooring products available in Australia have been certified under GreenTag LCA certification and achieve Level A ratings. Two manufacturers – Armstrong and Polyflor – have also achieved verification of compliance with the Best Practice PVC Guidelines in Green Star, possibly the most stringent performance requirement for PVC products anywhere in the world.
Product research and development is delivering significant environmental, aesthetic and maintenance benefits.
Greater design possibilities are available thanks to new and improved coatings and surface treatments, such as polyurethane finishes applied with laser technology and the new types of embossing available.
There is greater ability to custom design floors now by adding accent colours to standard visuals. In the heterogeneous sheet, vinyl tile and plank categories, the visuals now range from timber to concretes, even distressed metals. The new generation surface finishes result in more realistic timber and ceramic design looks.
Improved performance characteristics cover wear and maintenance as well as acoustic and comfort properties.
Additives can be instilled throughout the entire wear layer to ensure a product remains low maintenance for the life of the flooring.
New lines don’t need waxing or polishing and negate the need for chemicals/reduce water consumption in the maintenance regime.
Another innovation is loose lay tiles and roll products requiring no gluing and less sub-floor preparation, helping speed up installation.
While slip resistance can be achieved with surface treatments, a true safety floor (R10+) has impregnated particles baked in during manufacture to ensure it retains its slip resistant characteristics throughout life.
Manufacturing processes have also changed to water based inks and market leaders are ISO 14000/1 Certified.
Early plasticisers – ingredients used to increase the flexibility and durability of the material – came under scrutiny over health, environmental and safety concerns. Products are now being developed using ‘bio plasticisers’, meaning they are made from renewable resources.
The industry has also worked hard to ensure that new safety flooring is 100 per cent recyclable.
Qualities such as stain resistance, green plasticisers and low maintenance Evercare surface treatment are some of the reasons Gerflor Mipolam Symbioz was specified for the new operating theatres at Melbourne’s Epworth hospital (left).
Sophi MacMillan, chief executive of the Vinyl Council of Australia, says Australian made PVC flooring now incorporates both installation off cuts and end-of-life (post consumer) vinyl flooring waste.
“Post consumer PVC bottles, now in the millions, are used in new floor production. PVC is such a long lasting material that the harnessing of it after a lifetime back into new floors is not only feasible but is done in Australia,” she says.
“Products vary in quality and price and it is important to select the right quality, wear layer and surface treatment for a particular environment,” says MacMillan.
“Surface treatments also vary and influence not only the life and look of the floor, but provide essential resistance to chemicals or abrasion in settings such as hospitals. A quality (and they do vary) polyurethane surface treatment creates a barrier against dirt and bacteria. Premium products are also highly resistant to scuffs and scratches and easy to clean.”
The environmental case
There have been important steps forward in improving the environmental impact of this product through programs like the Vinyl Council’s Product Stewardship Program and the Green Star Best Environmental Practice guidelines for PVC.
As MacMillan notes, there was a period where PVC was considered bad for the environment, but work by organisations like the Vinyl Council with manufacturers and stakeholders such as the Green Building Council means “these perceptions are rapidly changing”.
“Experience is showing that going back to old products such as linoleum and rubber does not solve the problem. There were good reasons why vinyl enjoyed great success after the Second World War, replacing many of these older types of flooring,” she says.
“The environmental impact of vinyl compared with competing products such as lino has always been considered very similar according to peer reviewed science.”
Specifiers wanting to know the facts are now able to look to various independent organisations, including ecolabels like ecospecifier in Australia and BRE in the UK, who carry out independent assessments of materials including PVC flooring.
A game-changer in recent years has been the new Green Star Credit allowing certified best practice PVC products the opportunity to earn points towards a building project’s Green Star accreditation.
So far, over twelve manufacturers across a range of products have achieved certification, MacMillan says, including Australian flooring manufacturer Armstrong and Polyflor from the UK.
“One of the significant outcomes of the Green Star approach to Best Practice PVC has been its global supply chain influence,” MacMillan says, “as every PVC product in Australia relies to a greater or lesser extent on inputs from overseas. It is driving real change through these supply chains.”
Meanwhile, a major focus of the Vinyl Council’s work today is advancing PVC recycling.
They have undertaken an extensive review of current recycling practices in Australia and the capabilities and capacities of local product manufacturers to develop recyclate containing products and to purchase recycled PVC.
The industry continues to address systemic barriers to greater levels of recycling and is aiming to achieve a well connected, commercially viable market for recycled PVC throughout the entire supply chain with standardised recycled PVC qualities available for existing and newly designed products.
A recent initiative has been the launch of a recycling program for PVC medical products in hospitals which is seeing a growing volume of recycled PVC being made available to other manufacturers.