To PVC or not to PVC?

An interview with Elizabeth Park, Director of Innovation & Marketing Excellence for Graphics Solutions EMENA.

Continuing the interview sharing Avery Dennison’s  vision of enabling a sustainable graphics industry, Elizabeth Park discusses one of the key issues, the use of PVC.

How do you see the debate about the use of PVC in graphics products evolving? 

More and more of our end customers are developing sustainability strategies, especially larger global brand owners. We often see the goal of eliminating the use of PVC within their strategies, and much of this is influenced by some historical trends to remove PVC packaging. 

I think their concerns are largely related to the fact that PVC is not an easy material to recycle, and releases harmful dioxins when incinerated at end of life. 

Why is PVC still used in graphics products?

We know that PVC is a very effective material for graphics applications. There are many companies that still value PVC, mainly for its conformability and durability - especially in outdoor applications where a longer life is required. From a sustainability point of view, because of its long life phase, PVC requires less frequent replacement compared with, for example, a polyolefin material. 

I believe it's time for our industry in general to challenge the materials we use and, where it's useful, to look for alternative materials. This could mean compromising on some of the expectations we have regarding some of the features the alternative products offer. If possible, applications should be approached differently and we should be prepared to pay a little more. I think it is also especially important to provide insight into the environmental footprints of different materials. Only in this way can our customers make informed decisions and avoid 'greenwashing'. 


What are the other major sustainability challenges our industry needs to address?

One of the concerns that our industry still has is around the end-of-life destination of finished products. Our constructions can contain inks, color pigments and of course adhesives, and this is a challenge to recycle such composite materials, whether or not they are made using PVC. As an industry, we need to think about how to create materials that offer a sustainable solution at their end of use phase. 

The debate continues, but our position within Avery Dennison is focused on listening to our customers, understanding their concerns and providing them with the data to help them make informed choices regarding PVC or PVC-free products. We see it as our responsibility to provide our customers with a portfolio that offers them that informed choice. 


Taking into account all criteria such as the use of fossil fuels, energy, water, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and waste, what is the most sustainable product choice as a graphics converter?

The best case would of course be to put as few materials on the market as possible, and to not create waste, but we know this is not always possible. The next best-case scenario in terms of sustainability is the use of renewable raw materials. In our industry we use films made from polymers - and this is also the case for PVC-free films and solvent-based adhesives. These polymers are petroleum based, and of course petroleum is a non-renewable resource. So when we make choices taking into account the life cycle of a product, we must avoid using excessive amounts of non-renewable resources and look for alternatives. 

This is where we can ask an important question: is PVC better than a polyolefin or a polyurethane film? If you look at the weight of PVC, more than 50% of it is chlorine (CI). That means that if you compare a certain amount of PVC with PO or PU, the PVC contains less petroleum. On that specific aspect of sustainability, PVC scores more favorably. All of the pros and cons for each of the different materials must be taken into account when thinking about sustainability measures, and this applies to both PVC and PVC-free materials. Striving for products that require fewer non-renewable components is the best rule in my opinion. 

Many factors are involved in how products are treated at the end of their use phase. For example, can they be reused or recycled, or can we recover energy from their combustion? PVC scores less favorably when it ends up in the waste stream, because PVC does not break down and will therefore remain in our soil forever. Other polymers do degrade, although it can take several years, for example 5-10 years (PET), 20-30 years (PP), or up to 1000 years for LDPE. 

We need to consider our choices for each of the different aspects within the life cycle assessment and sustainability hierarchy. A meaningful view of sustainability considers how a product is manufactured, what raw materials are used, how it performs during the use phase and what happens to it at the end of life. 

We are at early stages of our sustainability journey, but it is important to set expectations and targets and hold ourselves accountable to demonstrate progress. 

For more information on our sustainability commitment, you can visit our website and check out our sustainability brochure.