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PVC Explained


This briefing has been prepared by the British Plastics Federation's Vinyl's Group.

Further information on PVC is also available on Plastipedia - the world's largest plastics encyclopedia. Click here to visit Plastipedia.



PVC good for life, good for the enviroment

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is a major plastics material which finds widespread use in building, transport, packaging, electrical/electronic and healthcare applications.
PVC has been in commercial production since 1933. It now accounts for about 20% of all plastic manufactured world-wide, second only to polyethlene. The UK produces approx. 500,000 tonnes of PVC per annum.

PVC is a very durable and long lasting construction material, which can be used in a variety of applications, either rigid or flexible, white or black and a wide range of colours in between.
Due to its very nature, PVC is widely used in many industries and provides very many popular and necessary products.

57% of the molecular weight of PVC is derived from common salt, with the remaining 43% derived from hyrdocarbon feedstocks.          
  • Over 50 quadrillion tonnes of salt exist dissolved in the sea, with over 200billion tonnes of salt available underground - reserves of this material are clearly abundant.
  • Ethylene from oil equates to 0.3% of annual oil usage, but increasingly etheylene from sugar crops is also being used for PVC production.
The manufacturing process:
The PVC production process consists of 5 steps:
  • The extraction of salt and hydrocarbon resources
  • The production of ethylene and chlorine from these resources
  • The combination of chlorine and ethylene to make the vinyl chloride monomer (VCM)
  • The polymerisation of VCM to make poly-vinyl-chloride (PVC)
  • The blending of PVC polymer with other materials to produce different formulations providing a wide range of physical properties.

Products and bi-products of PVC manufacture include Chlorine and Caustic Soda, two of perhaps the most important manufacturing "ingredients" not only for PVC manufacture, but many other applications. Chlorine is used in the manufacture of life-saving medication, indeed 85% of all pharmaceuticals. Caustic Soda too has many key, everyday applications, including the following applications: pulp and paper manufacture, soap and surfactant manufacture, detergents and cleaners, aluminia extraction, textiles and in the food industry. 
PVC is used in a wide variety of applications, including windows and doors, cladding and fascia boards, pipes, packaging (cling film, for instance), healthcare (blood bags, hospital flooring), automotive (various), flooring applications and an every day product, which is often taken for granted - credit cards.
Around 34 million tons of PVC was produced worldwide in 2006, with approx. 6 million tonnes being used within Western Europe, predominantly used for rigid applications such as windows, doors and pipes.


The essential raw materials for PVC are derived from salt and oil. The electrolysis of salt water produces chlorine, which is combined with ethylene (obtained from oil) to form vinyl chloride monomer (VCM). Molecules of VCM are polymerised to form PVC resin, to which appropriate additives are incorporated to make a customised PVC compound .
PVC's major benefit is its compatibility with many different kinds of additives, making it a highly versatile polymer. PVC can be plasticised to make it flexible for use in flooring and medical products. Rigid PVC, also known as PVC-U (The U stands for "unplasticised") is used extensively in building applications such as window frames.

Its compatibility with additives allows for the possible addition of flame retardants although PVC is intrinsically fire retardant because of the presence of chlorine in the polymer matrix.

PVC has excellent electrical insulation properties, making it ideal for cabling applications. Its good impact strength and weatherproof attributes make it ideal for construction products. PVC can be clear or coloured, rigid or flexible, formulation of the compound is key to PVC's "added value".



PVC is such a versatile material, it has many possible applications in the modern world, including some of the areas listed below:                    

 PVC in Construction   

PVC has been used extensively in a wide range of construction products for over half a century. PVC's strong, lightweight, durable and versatile characteristics make it ideal for window profiles. PVC's inherent flame retardant and excellent electrical insulation properties make it ideal for cabling applications.

Typical example of PVC construction products include:

  • Window and door profiles, conservatories and atria
  • Pipes and fittings
  • Power, data and telecoms wiring and cables
  • Cable and services ducting
  • Internal and external cladding
  • Roofing and ceiling systems and membranes
  • Rainwater, soil and waste systems
  • Flooring
  • Wallcoverings
PVC in Healthcare  

PVC has been used for hundreds of life-saving and healthcare products for almost 50 years being used in surgery, pharmaceuticals, drug delivery and medical packaging. Typical examples of PVC healthcare products include:

  • "Artificial skin" in emergency burns treatment
  • Blood and plasma transfusion sets
  • Blood vessels for artificial kidneys
  • Catheters and cannulae
  • Blood bags
  • Containers for intravenous solution giving sets
  • Container for urine continence and ostomy products
  • Endotracheal tubing
  • Inflatable splints
  • Surgical and examination gloves
  • Shatter-proof bottles and jars
  • Overshoes
  • Protective sheeting and tailored covers
  • Mattress and bedding covers
  • Wall and floor coverings
  • Blister and dosage packs for pharmaceuticals and medicines
 PVC in Automotive  

PVC brings both high performance qualities and important cost benefits to the automotive industry. Independent research by Mavel Consultants has shown that the typical cost of using alternative materials is in a range 20-100% higher per component. Typical examples of PVC automotive components include:

  • Instrument panels and associated mouldings
  • Interior Door Panels and Pockets
  • Sun Visors
  • Seat Coverings
  • Mud Flaps
  • Underbody Coating
  • Auto Harness Wiring    

Click here to find out the 12 good reasons why PVC is hard to beat as a resource efficient material.

PVC and Sustainability

There are many definitions of Sustainability and Sustainable Development, but it can best be defined by the three main pillars of sustainability; social, economic and environmental.

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The UK PVC Industry: 

  • Economic Sustainability

    The UK PVC industry has enduring pre-war origins and currently employs approx. 60,000 people across the supply chain, which is spread between large multinationals and SME's. There is an even distribution of these companies, though raw material producers tend to be based in the North-West of England, due to the abundance of natural resources. Consequently, the majority of the PVC industry supply chain is based in the UK, contributing to the growth of the UK economy at large.
  • Social Sustainability:

    Companies offer rewarding, long-term employment opportunities (including training opportunities), with safe working environments and whose products contribute to good quality homes, through energy efficient windows to the safe transportation of drinking water. Generally, PVC products are light-weight to install - thus a potential for fewer accidents, but far from just providing the windows and pipes for your property, cabling, ducting, roofline products are usually PVC. Of course, let's not forget that when you pay for these items, the humble credit card is often made from PVC!
  • Environmental Sustainability

    In terms of environmental sustainability there are common elements in all studies (on PVC and other materials) consistent with reducing human impact on eco-systems:

    With world population 6.5 Billion and growing we need to conserve scarce resources and we should minimise ‘human’ land-usage in order to protect biodiversity by giving priority to essential uses (e.g. food crops). To achieve this, we need to minimise or eliminate waste by efficient use of materials and increase recycling rates - something that the PVC industry within Europe is committed to.

    Industry is engaged in a voluntary sustainable development programme that goes beyond legal requirements, through VinylPlus (formerly Vinyl2010).


Commitments to Sustainability   

Since the late 90s, the European PVC Industry has been working hard to embrace its responsibility to the challenge of sustainable development. This was particularly evident in the achievements of Vinyl2010, the EU PVC Industry's ten-year Voluntary Committment to Sustainable Development, which made great progress in waste management, recycling and the responsible use of additives. 

Ambitious, new targets for sustainable development were launched on 22 June 2011 as part of the VinylPlus programme which will build on the success of Vinyl 2010. 


Recovinyl Logo

Recovinyl is the European-wide organisation, which has been set up to to facilitate the increased recycling of post-consumer PVC in the EU-25. The UK alone achieved over 49,000 tonnes post-consumer PVC recycled in 2010, one of the leading lights in Europe.

For further information pleae visit the Recovinyl website at

PVC and Fire

Many studies have shown that the initiation and development of accidental fires are complex fires.

PVC is resistent to ignition. The temperature required to ignite rigid PVC is more than 150 degrees celsius higher then that required to ignite wood. The ignition of common flexible PVC is lower, but with specialised formaulations, it may be significantly increased.

Under non-flaming conditions, PVC formulations typically give similar smoke densities to those produced by wood. Under flaming conditions, PVC produces greater quantities of smoke.

All organic materials, natural or synthetic, give rise to certain gases upon combustion. The majoy gaseous products of the combustion of PVC are carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen chloride and water, most importantly,'chlorine gas is never produced when PVC burns.'  Pvc and the Environment - Hydro Polymers

Click here to view FAQs on PVC in Fires produced by Beama Installations

PVC and Additives

Before PVC can be made into products, it has to be combined with a range of special additives. These additives can influence or determine a number of the products properties, namely; its mechanical properties, weather fastness, its colour and clarity and indeed whether it is to be used in a flexible application. This process is called compounding. 
The functional additives used in all PVC materials include heat stabilisers, lubricants, and in the case of flexible PVC, plasticisers. Optional additives, include a range of substances from processing aids, impact modifiers, thermal modifiers, UV stabilisers, flame retardants, mineral fillers, pigments, to biocides, and blowing agents for specific applications. The actual PVC polymer content in some flooring applications can be as low as 25% by mass, the remainder accounted for by additives.

Functional Additives

  • Heat stabilisers

    Heat stabilisers are necessary in all PVC formulations to prevent the decomposition of the PVC by heat and shear during processing. They can also enhance the PVC's resistance to daylight, and to weathering and heat ageing. In addition heat stabilisers have an important influence on the physical properties of the PVC and the cost of the formulation. The choice of heat stabiliser depends on a number of factors including the technical requirements of the PVC product, regulatory approval requirements and cost.
  • Lubricants

    These are used to reduce friction during processing. External lubricants can reduce friction between the PVC and the processing equipment, whereas internal lubricants work on the PVC granules.  
  • Plasticisers



    A plasticiser is a substance which when added to a material, usually a plastic, makes it flexible, resilient and easier to handle. Early examples of plasticisers include water to soften clay and oils to plasticise pitch for waterproofing ancient boats. 
    The selection of plasticisers depends on the final properties required by the final product, and indeed whether the product is for a flooring application or a medical application. There are more than 300 different types of plasticisers of which about 50-100 are in commercial use. For more information on plasticisers, please see 
    The most commonly used plasticisers are phthalates which can be divided into two distinct groups with very different applications and classifications;

    Low Phthalates: Low molecular weight (LMW) phthalates contain eight or less carbon atoms in their chemical backbone. These include, DEHP, DBP, DIBP and BBP. The use of these phthalates in Europe is limited to certain specialised applications. 

    High Phthalates: High molecular weight (HMW) phthalates are those with 7 - 13 carbon atoms in their chemical backbone. These include: DINP, DIDP, DPHP, DIUP and DTDP. HMW phthalates are safely used in many everyday including cables and flooring.

    Speciality plasticisers, such as adipates, citrates, benzoates and trimeliltates are used where special physical properties are required such as the ability to withstand very low temperatures or where increased flexibility is important.

    Many of the PVC products we use everyday but tend to take for granted contain phthalate plasticisers. They include everything from lifesaving medical devices such as medical tubing and blood bags, to footwear, electrical cables, packaging, stationery, and toys. In addition, phthalates are used in other non-PVC applications such as paints, rubber products, adhesives and some cosmetics.

Optional Additives

These optional additives are not strictly necessary for the integrity of the plastic but are used to draw-upon other properties. Optional additives include processing aids, impact modifiers, fillers, nitrile rubbers, pigments and colorants and Flame Retardants.

More can be read about these substances either via Plastipedia or an excellent publication available from the BPF Bookshop, entitled “PVC: Reaching for sustainability” by Dr. Mark Everard.

The BPF has a dedicated Additives Group, as well as a Masterbatch and Technical compounds Group.

Raising Awareness of the benefits of PVC

Through our Business Groups, especially the Vinyl's, Windows and Cellular PVC Groups, we are committed to promoting the use and recycling of PVC products across the board.

PVC is such a versatile material, which is used in so many areas of our lives that often go unnoticed. Through our seminar programme and also dedicated programmes to promote PVC, we aim to pass key messages on to our stakeholders.

Many resources are available not only on this website, but also on and The BPF visit many local Local Authorities, provide CPD Presentations to architects and specifiers and have a key role to play in London 2012.


The environmental impacts of any one material cannot be judged in isolation since the use of alternatives will not be without cost, either financially or to the environment.   Materials that compete with PVC are often promoted as a more natural choice, indeed, ‘natural’ does not equate to ‘better’ or ‘more sustainable'. 
Some competing materials claim environmental and sustainability advantages over PVC – this is usually based either on myths about the environmental impact of PVC or unjustifiably biased opinions about the competing materials. Key points to note include;   
  • The PVC industry has developed a good knowledge of sustainability. 
  • PVC has many economic, social and environmental sustainability advantages as compared to competing materials, however there is still more we can do. 
  • The PVC industry has invested heavily in sustainable development and the VinylPlus (formerly Vinyl2010) programme is receiving recognition.
We can only emphasise the proven performance and environmental credentials which continues to support the use of PVC in an extremely wide range of applications many of which, in the medical and pharmaceutical fields, and in certain safety critical construction uses, have life-saving capabilities. The benefits of the material are all around us, are rock solid and indisputable and they are thoroughly documented and attested by the application of sound science. The criticisms are, sadly, often lacking in sheer knowledge, intellectual rigour and honesty and are often politically motivated.

To summarise;
  • PVC is a safe material in all phases of its lifecycle
  • PVC is a socially valuable resource 
  • There are no scientific reasons for PVC to be replaced or phased out
The UK's PVC industry is represented by the Vinyls Group of the British Plastics Federation. We will be very pleased to provide further information.

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