Big Oil has been racing to make more plastic to offset any drop in demand for fossil fuel energy.
Despite well-publicised environmental concerns, the use of plastics has doubled in the past 20 years. This has been driven by the need for the oil industry to grow markets in response to a potential switch to renewable energy and to decreases in use elsewhere. The petrochemicals sector is projected to double again in the next two decades. The inexorable flood of plastic is affecting every country and every industry.
"Plastics is the Plan B for the fossil fuel industry"
Judith Enck, Founder and President, Beyond Plastics
In the flooring sector, this race for plastics has driven a progressive shift away from natural materials to oil-based synthetic polymers and fibres. Most large flooring producers have moved their businesses and their product portfolios in that direction. And, there has been an explosion of plastic flooring producers in China and other territories in the Far East.
UK Flooring is a Plastic Place
In the UK, the use of oil-based plastic flooring has grown year on year and now accounts for around 85% of the total volume of flooring in commercial projects.
PVC (polyvinyl chloride)
The most damaging of the plastics, PVC is high in carbon (up to 30 kg CO2 / m2) and poses unique risks to health in its production, use and disposal. These include the by-production of Dioxins, one of the most toxic of substances. For these reasons PVC is included in the Red List of materials that should be phased out from use in construction and plans are underway for an outright ban of PVC in Europe.
Despite these issues, PVC is still widely used in sheet vinyl, safety floor, luxury vinyl tile (LVT) and woven vinyl. Most UK flooring manufacturers include PVC in their portfolio including:
Phasing out these products in favour of sustainable alternatives would reduce carbon emissions by 100,000s tonnes and eliminate other toxic effects.
"To do nothing is to bequeath the next generation vast fields of material that left to its own devices will eventually pollute the environment with microplastics or perhaps burn up into deadly dioxins."
Floor Focus, LVT Report 2023
Synthetic rubber flooring is made from petrochemical feedstocks:
Butadiene is a by-product of petroleum refining
Styrene is captured either in the coking process or as a petroleum refining by-product
Like most plastic products, these ingredients are non-renewable and non-biodegradable.
Typical carbon footprints are 20-30 kg CO2 / m2.
The Environmental Protection Agency has classified Butadiene as a known human carcinogen and acute high exposures may cause damage to the central nervous system and other health effects.
Long-term exposure to Styrene in humans results in effects on the central nervous system (CNS), such as headache, fatigue, weakness, and depression.
The most widely used carpet fibre, Nylon is a polyamide which is made from petroleum. The production of nylon is energy intensive and its carbon footprint is high.
Nylon fibre 37 kg CO2 / kg
Wool fibre 7 kg CO2 / kg
This is reflected in the CO2 impact of the finished carpet. The highest carbon footprint carpets are generally those made from virgin nylon with a bitumen backing.
Producing nylon creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2 and the process is very energy and water intensive.
Nylon is non-biodegradable (it takes 30-40 years to break down) and is one of the biggest sources of microplastic ocean pollution.
The negative climate impacts of nylon are partially offset by the use of recycled fibres and non-petroleum content.
Polypropylene, invented in 1954, has been widely used as a carpet fibre at the value end of the market. It’s not as hard wearing as nylon so PP carpets are generally replaced more frequently. Fibre production is energy intensive so its carbon footprint is also high.
There are no means to recycle post-consumer PP so it’s a single-use plastic and it’s non-biodegradable, taking at least 20-30 years to decompose.
Bitumen is a by-product of crude oil distillation and is generally used as a binder in road construction etc. Uniquely, it is widely used as carpet tile backing in the UK. In other markets, alternative backings are used. In addition to environmental concerns, Bitumen has
other deficiencies and some producers are phasing out its use as a backing material.
Turning the plastic tide
Plastic flooring came to prominence in the 60s and 70s at a time when its climate impacts weren't properly understood. There are many reasons why its use has grown but when things look very different when viewed through a prism of sustainability.
It is non-renewable, non-biodegradable, high in embodied carbon and is generally single-use. Its continued use is incompatible with the need to reduce carbon in construction and restore the health of the planet.