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.
Polyflor (2000 PUR’ range pictured)
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.
Australia is particularly active in developing recycled PVC products. Post consumer PVC bottles have long been recycled into floor tiles by Armstrong. Most recently the company launched two ranges, ‘Eco Accolade’ (pictured below) and ‘Eco Terrazz’ both of which contain post consumer/post industrial contents of over 50 per cent.
The carbon footprint of these products is significantly lower. Armstrong have also been recognised for removing and reusing Australian made vinyl tiles from supermarket and department stores at the end of their life.
The next stage is recycling flooring at the end of its service life. Currently some manufacturers are recycling construction waste, like off cuts of material that are normally sent to landfill during installation.
Australia is also said to be leading in some areas of product stewardship.
“For example, Signatories to the Australian Product Stewardship Program have virtually completed the phase out of lead stabilisers, reducing the use of these additives by 99 per cent since 2002 (Europe will phase out of lead in 2015),” says MacMillan.
The next step in product stewardship is for the manufacturer to offer a contractual arrangement to take the product back at the end if its service life, which is a requirement of ‘Best Practice PVC’ certification. Armstrong does this with old supermarket floors, where they take the old floors, return it to their plant in Victoria, and turn it into a new product.
Yet for all the advances, there are still the detractors. Some non-vinyl flooring manufacturers continue to promote products as ‘PVC free’, a fact which attracts the ire of the Vinyl Council.
“This type of promotion is a blatant form of greenwashing,” says MacMillan. “If they are doing this, they are trying to appeal to a part of the market which is philosophically opposed to PVC despite the science on PVC’s environmental credentials being to the contrary.”
Perhaps the other chief argument of critics regards the perception that vinyl is the ‘cheaper’ alternative so must be of a lower quality.
However, MacMillan argues, “The attractiveness for specifiers are the colours and designs available. The fact that designs include copies of real products can lead some people to think the product inferior but usually the performance is better than the real thing.”
Turning the criticism on its head, she continues: “Cheap? No. Affordable, yes, especially given PVC products are often in service for decades. A recent study has shown that when the ‘total cost of ownership’ (TCO) of flooring is considered, the maintenance and cleaning are the most significant cost elements.”
“Standard PVC floors have the lowest purchase cost but not necessarily the lowest cost of ownership whereas newly-developed premium PVC flooring is the most economical solution due to its low maintenance requirements.
“Quality like most materials comes down to the quality of the organisation you buy from. The specifier should look at longevity in the industry. Is the brand promoting the product manufacturing the product or merely distributing from countries with less stringent quality and environmental standards?”
Altro Aquarius is a safety flooring with guaranteed performance in wet or dry conditions for combined shoe and barefoot use - including hard soled, rubber and training shoes. They say the technological breakthrough revolutionises product selection for potentially wet areas, eliminating risk in a wide range of environments.
Armstrong Flooring Australia
Australian manufactured PVC flooring products from the company gained certification to Green Star ‘Best Practice PVC’ for the built environment and ecospecifier GreenTag Greenrate (level ‘A’). It covers its Accolade Plus, Accolade Safe Plus, Eco-Accolade (pictured), Infinity and Wallflex products.
Forbo says while traditional commercial safety flooring has tended to sacrifice aesthetic appeal for practical performance, its Step safety flooring range addresses this as it comes in 72 colours covering R10, R11, R12 and Barefoot slip areas. It is suitable for a wide range of commercial, educational, health care and retail interiors.
Resilient flooring specialist Gerflor was first to market with loose lay products such as Texline that features a textile backing made from recycled plastic milk bottles. The range itself is 100 per cent recyclable under Gerflor Australasia’s ‘take back’ policy.
In the commercial space, Gerflor offers GreenTag Level A certification for Mipolam Symbioz, Taralay Premium Compact, Taralay Premium Comfort and the Tarasafe ranges.
Recent Gerflor innovations in the area of Evercare and Protecsol2 surface treatment technologies are revolutionising the health care industry. These, together with low maintenance products like Symbioz, negate the need for polishing or buffing.
Karndean Designflooring specialise in the manufacture of large luxury vinyl flooring, textile floor coverings, carpets and entrance flooring.
Karndean say the majority of their vinyl-tile and vinyl woodplank products are fully certified to GreenTag Level ‘A’, hence contributing 100 per cent eco points towards GreenStar projects.
Polyflor’s resilient and safety vinyl floor coverings provide solutions for healthcare, aged care, education, retail, office, mining, commercial and domestic installations. The company has made free BIM profiles available for download for its complete range of flooring (at www.bimstop.com/profile/polyflor/).
Signature says it offers Australia’s most comprehensive range of quality vinyl flooring products. Its modern manufacturing technologies offer Superguard advanced polyurethane coatings for vinyl floor protection. Their CushionBac, HDBac and SofTex backings offer warm, underfoot comfort to commercial grade durability in different width options.
This article was first published 17 October, 2012. (updated in November, 2014).