Chemistry Lesson

Australian Vinyls Corporation

It is unusual for a manufacturer of raw materials to campaign to consumers. But when the situation is so unclear and the equation so complex, action is called for. In this case we are talking about the pros and cons of various materials for construction – notably piping and window frames.

Australian Vinyls Corporation, Australia’s leading manufacturer and supplier of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) resin and wood-plastic composites, is embarking on an educational program to try to put across the virtues of PVC— particularly in such applications as building and infrastructure. Essentially, the company produces PVC resin, which is then used by manufacturers across the country to make electric cable insulation, packaging, floor coverings and automotive components, as well as piping for liquids and gas. Pipe is not well-suited to import because of its relative bulk, so local production is relatively healthy.

However, competition between materials is fierce and a lot of people underestimate the difference in performance between PVC and polyethylene (PE). The former’s reputation took a heavy blow, especially in Europe, when Greenpeace decided to argue for the abolition of chlorine, a gas which occurs naturally. Chlorine, or chloride (its ionized state) is the ‘c’ in PVC.

According to Australian Vinyls’ Market Development Manager Nigel Jones, “PVC uses up around 40 per cent of the world’s chlorine, as chloride, and if it didn’t, we would have to think up an alternative way of dealing with it.”

The company’s customers were not active enough themselves in trying to get the market to understand the difference between materials, which is why the Australian Vinyls team decided to weigh in itself. Pipe producers have in any case had a lean time in recent years – following the trends in their main industry: construction. “What might have been a lifeline was the evolution of the coal seam gas market, but most of that piping has been done in PE,” explains Mr Jones. “The major plastic pipe producers manufacture both PVC and PE pipe, so have been able to focus on PE for coal seam gas. We thought we could take the initiative and try to get something done about growing the PVC market by launching our ‘Think Pipes. Think PVC’ campaign.” Pipe accounts for around 75 per cent of all PVC resin used in Australia.

Some education has also been required to point out the performance differences between PVC and PE in, for example, piping applications. A homeowner is likely to simply request “plastic,” and a plumber may just use whatever is at hand. In commercial and infrastructure applications, of course, there is greater awareness. Mr Jones travels the country lecturing on the advantages of PVC – not least of which is that it is user-friendly. “At the end of the day, if everything is taken into account, it is also usually the most cost effective,” he adds.

In non-pipe applications PVC also has distinct performance advantages. Mr Jones describes the benefits in cabling (insulation). He also cites window frames – in particular, double glazing – as an example. While careful not to call installers unscrupulous, he believes many window suppliers fail to give their customers the optimum product for their home. Aluminium frames may be cheap but their thermal performance is far inferior to that of plastics. PVC comes at a price premium, but only compared to aluminium with a narrow gap between the panes. If you want an efficient thermal break aluminium frame, you will need a plastic insert between two sections of extruded metal. Even then, aluminium will not match the thermal performance of PVC.

Mr Jones explains that, “PVC has distinct energy-saving propensity by comparison with metal, not only in terms of reducing consumption in the home. Aluminium requires seven times as much energy to produce. The carbon footprint is way higher; when it comes to the environmental side, PVC has many advantages. Aluminium is also produced using government subsidies.” Australian Vinyls is working with the Vinyl Council of Australia on establishing an industry Code of Practice and proper local standards for PVC window profiles.

Key to the company’s education initiative was the emergence of PVC as being good from an environmental point of view, with the Green Star award for best practice by the Green Building Council of Australia (see sidebar for more). Mr Jones sees this credential as crucial to the future of the industry.

While Australian Vinyls does not produce pipe, only the resins for others to manufacture, it does have its own brand of flooring – ModWood. This is a wood composite that looks and feels like natural timber, but requires none of the maintenance of traditional woods.

ModWood is manufactured mainly from recycled products, including plastics (PE sourced mainly from used milk containers) and wood flour (from used building timber, such as offcuts), making it environmentally friendly. The precise details of the mix are a trade secret, but the product is roughly a 50-50 mix of wood and plastic, of which more than 80 per cent of the latter and all of the former are recycled. At this kind of proportion, the case for ModWood’s environmental credentials is even stronger than the product itself, given the concern over forest sustainability both at home and abroad. Many of the world’s woodchips and a lot of timber come from places such as Indonesia, where logging is done with minimal supervision and in many cases illegally. What better way to offset this worry than to use almost entirely recycled product?

ModWood uses home-grown technology based on the latest advances in additives for the wood-plastic industry from all over the world. These additives are thoroughly tested in Australian Vinyls’ laboratory to ensure the result is a safe, environmentally friendly, world-class product. The material is suitable for high-traffic areas where wear can be a problem with conventional timbers, and for in- or outdoors.

For the builder, there are numerous advantages – no warping, knots or bowed lengths. Unlike timber, ModWood actually comes with a warranty (10 years in residential, seven years in commercial applications). For an architect, ModWood offers “long-life contemporary colourways and profiles that retain their designer’s intent for years, with virtually no maintenance.” Mr Jones says, “homeowners will appreciate the simple fact that it needs almost no maintenance beyond sweeping the leaves off with a broom each autumn – no staining, no sanding. There is a small colour fade in the first six months – accounted for by the natural process of the timber element in the product – but after that time there is no further change in coloration. It is virtually impervious to termites too.”

The latest news is that the ModWood range now has a version that can be used in areas prone to bushfires. Flame Shield is a specially formulated board with a fire retardant additive included. Until now, decking board options for bushfire-prone areas were limited. Now Flame Shield can be used in BAL-12.5, BAL-19, BAL-29 and BAL-40 areas to give a traditional timber decking look and feel.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

January 27, 2021, 1:11 AM AEDT