What is vinyl?
Vinyl is a particular type of plastic that was first created by a German chemist, Eugen Baumann, in 1872. Decades later, two chemists at a German chemical company tried to use the poly-vinyl chloride, or PVC as it's more commonly called, in commercial products but were unsuccessful. It wasn't until 1928 that an American chemist, Waldo Semon, experimenting with a new adhesive for rubber, created the modern PVC as we know it — and its now-ubiquitous presence in our daily lives.
How is vinyl made?
The discovery of PVC was completely by chance. Eugen Baumann had accidentally left a flask of vinyl chloride in the sunlight (as chemists are wont to do). Inside, a white solid polymer polymer had materialized. Though Baumann was a renowned chemist and professor at various German universities, he never applied for a patent for his discovery of PVC.
Decades later, two chemists at a German chemical company called Griesheim-Elektron tried to mold the substance into commercial products, but also had no luck processing the hard substance. It wasn't until American inventor Waldo Semon came along, while working at the B.F. Goodrich Company, that PVC's versatile uses were fully explored.
The chemist was originally assigned to concoct a new synthetic rubber that would adhere to metal, as Goodrich was an Ohio-based manufacturing company that produced automobile tires. (The Goodrich Corporation went on to be one of the largest tire and rubber manufacturers in the world, before selling off its tire business to focus on aerospace and chemical manufacturing.)
In 1928, Semon was experimenting with vinyl polymers, a substance that was widely known but considered useless. In his 1999 obituary in The New York Times, he was quoted as recalling in a recent interview, “People thought of it as worthless back then. They'd throw it in the trash.” Little did they know.
During Semon's many experiments, he created a powdery substance with a texture not unlike flour and sugar. PVC's makeup consists of chlorine, based on common salt, and ethylene, which is derived from crude oil. The powder didn't work as Semon had hoped, but he continued to investigate, this time adding solvents to the powder and heating it to a high temperature.
What emerged was a jelly-like substance that could be tweaked to be both harder or more elastic — enter the modern PVC. Semon continued to play in his laboratory, further discovering that this gelatinous substance could be easily molded, would not conduct electricity, and was both waterproof and fire-resistant.
But with the stock market crash of 1929, Semon had to wait a couple more years before anyone was interested in the new plastic. According to the Times obituary, Semon had a “lightbulb moment” in the 1930s while watching his wife, Marjorie, make curtains. Seeing that this vinyl could be manipulated into a fabric, he eventually convinced his bosses to market the material under the trade name Koroseal. By 1933, Semon had received the patent, and shower curtains, raincoats, and umbrellas made out of PVC began rolling out in production. Semon was inducted into the Invention Hall of Fame in 1995 at age 97, with more than 100 patents under his name.
Who manufactures vinyl?
According to the Vinyl Institute, vinyl is the second largest-selling plastic in the world (behind polyethylene and polypropylene) and employs around 100,000 people in the United States. The top suppliers are based in East Asia and the U.S. — many are chemical companies, like DuPont and Westlake Chemical, while others are affiliates of actual petroleum companies, like OxyVinyls of Occidental Petroleum in Houston, Texas.
It is predicted that with the rise of electric cars, more and more companies with ties to the oil industry will turn their attention to plastic production. This will undoubtedly put more emphasis on petrochemicals, which now use 15% of fossil fuels as their feedstocks, but are expected to rise to 50% by 2040, according to Bloomberg. As global movements committed to the climate crisis continue to push the message that single-use plastic is a system failure, there is no doubt that the fossil fuel industry will be fighting right back.
Uses of vinyl
The Vinyl Institute states that “Vinyl’s low cost, versatility, and performance make it the material of choice for dozens of industries such as healthcare, communications, aerospace, automotive, retailing, textiles and construction.” Because it can be manipulated to be as rigid or as supple as one needs, vinyl has made its way into just about everything.
Housing and Construction
The Vinyl Institute estimates 70% of PVC is used in building and construction, where it can be found in roofing, siding, flooring, windows and doors, wallcovering, and fencing. PVC pipes are also quite commonly used as sanitary waste pipes, vent pipes, and drain traps.
In 1931, RCA Victor introduced Victrolac as a new material for producing records. Previously, records had been made out of shellac, celluloid, rubber, or mineral filler. The new vinyl was praised for its light weight, low surface noise, and resistance to breakage, but it wasn't until WWII that mass production of vinyl records became mainstream.
Walk into any hospital and you'll likely be surrounded by vinyl. Vinyl-covered hospital floors and walls reduce cross-infection, vinyl surgical gloves are essentials, PVC provides intravenous tubes for transfusions, and even your medication that comes in a blister pack — all vinyl.
Plastics have been in clothing since their invention, popping up in raincoats and umbrellas. Because of their longevity and water-resistance, PVC is popular in sports clothing, fire-protective clothing, awnings, and commercial tents. Its futuristic, shiny, patent leather-like material became mainstream popular in the 1960s and 70s, and continues on to this day.
As a wear-resistant coating, PVC thrives as the main protector of a car's underbody. It's most likely cladding your interior, too, as door panels and dashboards.
Is vinyl safe?
The Center for Health, Environment & Justice has called PVC a “poison plastic.” No other plastic contains or releases as many toxins as PVC does. Walk into any school classroom and you'll likely find vinyl flooring, roofing, carpeting, playground equipment, and even school supplies — all products made with PVC. The U.S. Congress actually banned phthalates in children’s toys in 2017, but the product is alive and well in school backpacks, three-ring binders, and lunchboxes.
Phthalates are chemicals used to “soften” PVC. The plasticizer is suspected to be an endocrine disruptor, harmful to pregnant woman, and even linked to rates of miscarriage. In 2018, Treehugger reported on a Swedish study that found living in a house with vinyl floors increased levels of phthalates in pregnant women.
Off-gassing is the release of chemicals from all the products you own, or even the material that make up your own house. You know that new shower curtain smell you get when you open up the box? That's a bunch of toxic chemicals seeping out into the air that can last for weeks. While the effects of these emitting volatile organic compounds (VOC) are still being studied, many of those chemicals can cause allergies and other health problems.
The future of vinyl
With vinyl essentially being a product of the petrochemical industry, the oil industry is consistently looking for new uses, especially as the price of gasoline stagnates while cars become more efficient and electric car sales go up. Bloomberg.com noted that, “As the world strives to wean itself off fossil fuels, oil companies have been turning to plastic as the key to their future. Now even that’s looking overly optimistic.”
But Big Oil doesn’t think so; according to Tim Young at the Financial Times, petrochemicals are “the only major source of oil demand where growth is expected to accelerate. These forecasts assume a steady, strong demand for plastic will translate into increasing consumption of feedstock. They provide a rare ray of optimism for the oil industry against increasingly dire long-term predictions that growth of other demand sources will slow.”
Imperishability, once plastic's greatest asset, is now one of our earth's curses. The current plastic economy sees about 90% of its products used once, then discarded. An editorial in the journal Nature Communications predicts: “We need a fundamental change in order to make a noticeable impact on the plastic waste seeping into our environment. A new plastic future in which biodegradable polymers replace conventional plastics could be the answer.”
However, even biodegradable plastic has its challenges. These “green” plastics require industrial composting to break down and continue to encourage the very root of our problem: a disposable culture based on the convenience of living in the moment. The anti-plastic movement continues to grow, but with one of the biggest and most powerful industries behind it, PVC, literally and figuratively, has a long life ahead of it.
TH's Lloyd has a few thoughts on plastics and vinyl; you can view his unfiltered lecture here.
What is vinyl? Let's explore how this ubiquitous and versatile plastic is made, what its uses are, and all of its safety concerns.