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Flexible PVC & Sports: A history of hurdles and successful comebacks

Since they were first synthesised and commercialised in the second half of the XIX century, plastics have been historically linked to sports. From clothing and safety equipment, to construction materials and training gears, they revolutionised the way professional and amateur athletes compete. Despite their use in a large number of applications, plastics are under constant scrutiny by regulators and are often criticised in the media. No other plastic epitomise this dichotomy better than flexible PVC.

Also known as vinyl, PVC is used in a number of common sports goods. However, construction is where flexible PVC applications are most widely used when building large venues such as halls, school gymnasium, stadiums, and many other sports facilities. Structural and roofing membranes as well as wall coverings are popular uses due to PVC’s long-lasting, light-weight and cost-efficiency characteristics. When used as flooring, it absorbs shocks, is easily cleaned and can sustain high levels of foot traffic. PVC is also found in ‘backstage’ items such as tubing, mastics and sealants, hoses and other engineering and construction products.

WITH OR WITHOUT YOU: PVC AT THE OLYMPICS AND WORLD CUP

The use of PVC, not just in its flexible form, has repeatedly been a point of contention when defining the purchasing policies for large sporting events. The 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, the 2012 London Olympic Games and last year’s FIFA World Cup offer good examples of innovative PVC applications but also show how misinformed attitudes towards PVC can limit its uses.

In response to pressure from environmental groups, the organisers of the Sydney Olympic Games, the first in Australian history, adopted a very restrictive policy on the use of PVC. Vinyl was eliminated from a wide range of building and construction materials, including sewer, storm water and water mains as well as some power and light cables. In spite of the organisers’ attempts, there were a large number of cables, temporary and permanent venues where PVC could not be replaced due to functional or structural reasons.

Fast forward to 2009, the Commission for Sustainable London 2012 – a body set up to monitor and ensure the sustainability of the Olympic games – defined its own policy on the use of PVC with special emphasis on flexible applications containing plasticisers. Far from banning its use, they asked providers to respect certain requirements such as using vinyl with at least 30% recycled content, meeting EU standards on effluent discharges or vent gases, avoiding lead, mercury or cadmium stabilisers, etc. Notably, the Olympic Delivery Authority asked all contractors to show that their products had been manufactured in accordance with the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers (ECVM) Industry Charter.

As a result, over 140,000sqm of flexible PVC had been installed when the Games opened, in the Royal Artillery Barracks to the Velopark Cycling Centre and the roof of the main Olympic Stadium. In another site, the Basketball Arena, about 20,000sqm of patterned, recyclable white PVC were used, making it one of the largest temporary venues ever built. Interestingly, parts of this arena and other temporary structures were transported to Brazil and reused in some of the 2014 FIFA World Cup venues.

Arena das Dunas. Courtesy: Populous

The petal-shaped roof of the Arena das Dunas was completely coated with PVC on one side. Image courtesy: Populous

Several stadiums built or restored for the World Cup used virgin and recycled PVC extensively. The petal-shaped roof of the Arena das Dunas in Natal was completely coated with PVC on one side. A waterproof PVC roof cover and a fire-resistant PVC membrane were used for the Arena Pantanal, which replaced the Stadium Governador José Fragelli in Cuiabá. Such elements made for a modern and airy architecture, which exploits natural light and favours cross ventilation. The goal was to save energy, modernise the look of the stadium and protect spectators from midday sun.

In what might become a very symbolic transfer of the Olympic spirit – not just the Olympic torch – the mayor of Rio de Janeiro has expressed interest in re-locating the London basketball arena to his city for the 2016 Olympic Games.

PLASTICISERS, WHAT ART THOU?

But what is it that pushes PVC under the spotlight? The answer is simple; plasticisers. They are chemicals that make PVC bendable, soft and usable in a number of applications. There are more than 300 different types of plasticisers of which between 50 and 100 are in commercial use. Each plasticiser has different uses, legal requirements and regulatory status but they have often been linked to a number of health concerns in public and media debates that have failed to recognise the differences that exist within such a large group of substances.

Issues related to certain plasticisers have been taken care of by regulators and the industry in accordance with scientific evidence and the evaluation of independent authorities. According to the EU’s principal chemical regulation – better known as REACH and which is among the most stringent in the world – selected plasticisers had to be phased out in Europe by February 2015, unless they are granted EU authorisation to be used in specific applications.

Being aware of the diversity between plasticisers can make a huge difference when devising and planning for the potential uses of flexible PVC. After the curtain dropped at the London Games, the Olympic organisers recognised that their policy was too stark and regretted not differentiating between various plasticisers. In observance of such differences, plasticiser producers have invested millions of euros to develop large enough volumes of suitable plasticisers, keeping up with the demanding market and performance requirements for flexible PVC.

RECYCLABLE AND SUSTAINABILE

At the time of the Sydney Olympics, a key concern linked to the use of PVC was its sustainability and end-of-life treatment. Arguably, PVC’s long life-span – in the case of pipes sometimes reaching the fifty-year mark – and low maintenance costs were among the reasons for which recycling of PVC was not fully developed at the time. This was not only an environmental problem but also a huge missed opportunity because PVC’s technical characteristics make it well-suited for recycling.

With these concerns in mind, in the year 2000 the European PVC industry launched a voluntary programme aimed at improving PVC’s sustainability performance and creating a very much-needed recycling infrastructure. Over 900,000 tonnes of PVC were recycled over the course of a decade which also saw the phase-out of cadmium stabilisers. The London Olympic Delivery Authority explicitly recognised the work done by the European PVC industry via Vinyl 2010.

VinylPlus – the continuation of the programme for the next 10 years – has adopted a more holistic approach and ambitious targets. The goal is to recycle 800,000 tonnes of PVC per year by 2020. The target seems in hand, in 2013 alone 444,468 tonnes of PVC were recycled, a 23% increase despite a stagnating European economic landscape. Construction applications represent a large part of the total recycled waste, which includes window profiles, roofing and waterproofing membranes, flooring and coated fabrics.

NOT JUST ABOUT THE BIG STUFF – PVC IN EVERYDAY SPORTS

Besides stadiums and large construction works, flexible PVC is used in an extensive range of applications for the professional and amateur practice of sports. The versatility, light-weight and resilience of this material makes it ideal for items used in swimming, boxing, running, cycling, tennis, fitness, sailing, football, skiing, and the list goes on and on.

For example, flexible PVC is used in inflatable buoyancy aids, water wings and beach rescue buoys. It is also suitable for outdoor sports such as the clothes used by sailors who require protection from natural elements. In boxing and martial arts, vinyl is used for gloves and protective sparing pads. Its durability and cost-effectiveness make soft PVC an indispensable component of footwear, rugby post guards, flippers, diving masks, sneakers, ski slalom poles, landing pads, tennis nets, ping-pong balls and tables, bags and mats, as well as a variety of inflatable equipment such as kayaks and beach balls, etc.

Collection systems aimed at recycling small consumer goods is certainly an area that requires improvement in Europe where most cities are not prepared to process, for example, footwear and sports equipment. Some local shops and manufacturers have started offering their own take-back schemes for unwanted or worn out equipment.

STAYING ON THE GAME     

Tens of thousands of citizens, spectators and sports enthusiasts use and benefit from flexible PVC every day, whether directly – by purchasing and using PVC equipment – or indirectly by watching or attending sports events such as the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup. Sports applications also contribute to maintaining a dynamic manufacturing sector working endlessly to innovate and stay competitive.

Flexible PVC has been in the spotlight for many years, yet it has remained in use on many world class sporting events and top-quality equipment. Perhaps it will never be the glossiest or most celebrated of materials, but it has proven it can jump through hoops and ladders to deliver on performance. It is time we embrace it and try to make the most out of it, whether playing sports or watching a game from our living room sofa.

 

Top image: Arena Cuiabá – GCP Arquitetos – © Neorama, ALMA Estúdio.