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Don’t Assume That Long-Standing Products Like Flooring Are Safe

Sustainability consultant Alan Best reveals that a phthalate used in vinyl flooring has been rated a Substance of Very High Concern:

THE first thing any product must be if it is to be sustainable is safe: Safe to manufacture; safe to install and use and safe to dispose of. Given that most flooring materials have been around for a very long time it would seem that their safety could be taken for granted.
Unfortunately when it comes to the use of some chemicals present in everyday products we currently don’t know nearly enough to assume this. I was invited by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), based in Helsinki, to speak on the topic of chemicals of concern which have been used in flooring materials over the years. This was at a media briefing on the progress of the REACH Regulations for which they are the responsible body.
The briefing was attended by trade press and other media representatives from around Europe who heard from presenters including Fiat Chrysler, the car manufacturer, and Kemira a multinational chemical company. Anyone involved in the REACH processes will be aware of how time consuming and costly they can be and how a significant number of chemicals are now coming close to being removed from the market.
First among these is DEHP a phthalate which has been used as a common plasticiser in vinyl flooring and which now is nearing the end of the line, having been designated a Substance of Very High Concern. In future only specific uses can be made of DEHP and these must be formally authorised by the European Commission.
Rolls Royce has applied for authorisation for use of DEHP in a turbine blade in a jet engine. Some EU companies involved in the soft PVC recycling industry have requested authorisation to continue to recycle DEHP from recovered plastic waste including flooring waste. This application is strongly supported through the public consultation process by a submission from the Japan Plasticiser Industry Association who challenge most of the scientific evidence against DEHP.
However this support for the recycling of soft PVC containing DEHP has been countered by objections from a number of NGO’s based in Europe as well as a major academic institution in the USA. The decisions on these applications will be announced shortly and could have significant implications for our plans to reduce flooring waste.
Further developments involving flooring chemicals will occur under the Biocidal Chemicals Regulations which now requires that the use of antimicrobials to prevent the growth of bacteria, fungus and moulds in products such as carpets be formally authorised.
The concern is that the widespread use of biocidal materials in our homes and workplaces can lead to the development of resistant strains of bacteria, such as MRSA, against which many antibiotics are now ineffective.
It could be easy to see regulations such as these as unnecessary red tape which add to the burden of everyone in industry. However we are moving into a world where the demand for chemicals will increase but the only manufacturers who will prosper will be those who can show that their products satisfy stringent safety rules.
ECHA has been charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the European Chemicals Industry is able to thrive in this environment. Additionally the work of ECHA will lead to the harmonisation of classification, labelling and packaging which will ensure that the hazards presented by chemicals contained in products are clearly communicated to workers and consumers throughout the EU.
There are also entrepreneurial companies who are taking up the challenge and finding safer and commercially viable alternatives to satisfy the demands of major players in their industries such as Skanska the construction giant who is committed to achieve a built environment free of toxic chemicals.
I also presented at a Sustainability Forum in London with Esther Ridriguez of KPMG the major accountancy firm who now has a specialist division advising major corporations and governments on global sustainability issues which are likely to affect business.
Also speaking was Dr Sabine von Wiren-Lehr who is director of the European Water Stewardship (EWS) Programme which works with a great number of manufacturers, water authorities and NGO’s across the EU on multiple programmes designed to reduce pollution and ensure the continuance of long term supplies of healthy water.
KPMG have identified what it terms as 10 global megaforces which are the main impacts which will influence what will occur and what additional demands will be made on the planet if current trends continue. These are shown in the figure above .
What would appear to be encouraging is the upward trend in middle class purchasing power which is predicted to be up by around 72% over the next 20 years. This offers huge opportunities to all businesses engaged in flooring as our customers would appear set to need more products and services from us.
However the fact is that many of these middle class purchasers will be located in markets such as China, India and Brazil which might see even more jobs and businesses exported there if our own market growth is stunted during this time.
The continuance of deforestation during the next 20 years, if nothing changes, will see the size of the Amazon Rain Forest reduced by a further 55%. Let us hope that the demand for wooden flooring during this time is met from supplies from accredited forestation management programmes which will ensure what is removed is replaced and sustained.
Raw material extraction is set to continue at a high pace and if this is allowed to continue vital raw materials such as phosphates used in fertilisers will be under serious threat at a time when world food demand will be rising by up to 50%. We are already close to exhausting supplies of newer chemical substances such as Indium Tin Oxide which is an expensive bi product of lead and tin mining and is an essential component of the touchscreen that you may be reading this article on.
This threat to our now essential mobile phones and laptops has given rise to a pressing need for a replacement. This in turn is leading to the development of carbon nano tube technology. These are particles measuring a single atom’s width which can mimic the electro conductive properties of Indium Tin Oxide and other conductive materials. This technology has game changing potential for the flooring, energy and other key industries.
As usual necessity may be the mother of invention and a consequence may be that instead of relying on the environmentally damaging mining industries we may be moving to an entirely new scenario where boffins in white coats working in sterile manufacturing environments provide key raw materials of the future.
The mining industry is of course essential in the flooring supply chain including raw materials for everything from filler material to flame retardants. Mining is the focus of one of the project groups on the EWS project due to its overwhelming reliance on water supplies in order to operate.
Mining and chemical companies are therefore working with EWS to identify effective environmental management programmes. These start on their site of operations and radiate out through their supply chains to identify impacts on water on a river basin by river basin split across Europe.
This is highly complex and has led to the development of a number of analytical tools which are freely available from EWS to any manufacturer wishing to identify their own potential impacts and where they are likely to be occurring.
All engaged in industries which use and depend on significant volumes of water face shared risks dependent on the main source of their supply.
The risks include the continuing physical availability of water of the right quality and the potential damage that they will do to the reputation of their business if their operations are seen to impact negatively on the operations and wellbeing of others drawing from the same river basin supply. There are, of course, parts of the world including parts of Europe where the very availability of water is under severe threat.
Alan Best, a sustainability consultant, is chair of the Flooring Sustainability Partnership, which he attends on behalf of Shaw Industries Group. He works with a number of construction related industries specialising in environmental certification, substitution of hazardous chemicals and waste reduction. Alan is co-author of the Croner ‘Essential Guide to REACH’. He also sits on a number of international bodies where he represents Shaw Industries Group.

This article has been reproduced from the Contract Flooring Journal website. You can find them at