Flooring (vinyl)

I heard a discussion today about the best i.e. “greenest” way to remodel a house with an ugly or decomposing floor. The question involved a sheet vinyl floor cover which the questioner wanted to replace.

  • AN ASIDE: Sheet vinyl means a sheet, or membrane, made out of polyvinyl chloride, usually just an eighth inch or a few millimeters thick, used as a top covering for floors, especially in kitchens or bathrooms because it is entirely waterproof and wears well. Polyvinyl Chloride, usually known as PVC, is one of the cheapest and most widely used plastics, being found in common, white water piping, shower curtains, toys, clothing, bottles and much more. It is made by polymerizing vinyl chloride, a fairly toxic gas, into long chains. The residual vinyl chloride at manufacture is reported to be one ppm. Non-volatile organic compounds (phthalates) are added as plasticizers, to keep the plastic flexible. Some heavy metals (lead and cadmium) are added as initiators, to start the polymerization reaction, but those will be phased out worldwide by 2015 to be replaced by completely non-toxic calcium compounds.

In the discussion, two comments were made by an “expert” about the vinyl floor. One, that it continually outgasses which is dangerous to live with and two, that even if it is ripped up, it will be sitting in a sic “landfill” i.e. dump, for thousands of years.

The outgassing problem is being extensively dealt with under regulations which restrict permissible vinyl chloride remaining in the finished plastic. An internet search for an actual study of outgassing over time found no such report though unabashed fear mongering was widespread (PVC is called “poison plastic”) as well as certain technical reports by the PVC industry. In no case were actual laboratory studies reported. It seems highly doubtful that outgassing remains detectable after some initial time of a few months or a year but the actual rate of diminution is what is required. My main point here, is that the expert was probably succumbing to simple fear mongering considering that the flooring had been in place for years.

The next objection, that the PVC flooring would remain in a dump for thousands of years, is illuminating. A so-called expert, though, searching for a “green” solution, could not see further than conventional, wasteful practices for tearing up and throwing into a dump. Could he have, for example, suggested removing the floor in tiles that were cut in squares so that the flooring could be reused somewhere else, where its “ugliness” was not a problem? After all, it had had many years in which to reduce any outgassing, so it was better than a new product. It was objected to for esthetic reasons, not because it was deteriorated. Actually, this is unlikely since most PVC floors are adhered to the subfloor with a tough adhesive that causes the flooring to tear when removed, rather than be cleanly removable.

It was the expert’s failure to even recognize the problem which disturbed me, even if he could not solve it for a particular floor. This was evident, because with a severe lack of forethought, he proceeded to recommend a replacement floor, a linoleum, made with some kind of organic, polymerized linseed oil (basically a thick, pre-dried paint) which likewise comes in sheets and is likewise adhered to the subfloor, thus perpetuating the same problem when it, in turn, expired. And that expiration date would be coming fairly soon since PVC is very tough and wear resistant while a polymerized linseed oil is much less so.

Let us turn instead to the Zero Waste question of what would be a superior way to design flooring. A basic principle of ZW is that two dissimilar materials are never joined together except by methods which can be undone. Cheap, tough adhesives fail this test. So the tendency to throw the flooring down quickly, using the easiest method, with no thought for the future, is something to be strenuously opposed.

Subfloors are often particle board which can hold screws. Fastening any flooring down in squares, with screws, is a method that will allow individual squares or all of them to be removed any time in the future. One single square that is burned or cut or otherwise ruined can be removed and replaced. If the squares are to match, ZW requires that matching squares be made available for years to come. Since this requirement will not work if millions of new designs are put out every year, this requires some level of standardization. Could this be the genesis of a new business which stocked standard designs of squares for decades? As old floors, with many still good tiles were removed, the good tiles could be warehoused. Floors, like any product, need to be designed for repair.

What about the PVC itself. The industry has long maintained that PVC cannot be reused as a material, what is now called recycling. When you are facing a simple material (such as steel or aluminum) then melting it down or repelletizing it in the case of plastics, is acceptable when no higher application is available. So why can’t PVC be chopped up and remelted into new pellets?

It turns out that the main problem is the willy-nilly, flagrant use of every kind of resin, plasticizer, initiator, UV stabilizer and filler that chemists can come up with in widely varying proportions in every different product. They may all be PVC but is that enough? Not at all. They may as well be different plastics since their constituents vary so widely. What does Zero Waste design require? Very simple. Standardization. Does it matter that we produce billions of pounds of incompatible plastics which are going to end up in dumps and incinerators just because they don’t mix? The plastics industry in concert with the garbage industry says “don’t sweat it!” Zero Waste theory says yes, this is a big social problem that we need to solve. The solution is right in front of our eyes. Get rid of that unnecessary variety through standardization. Then follow that up with clear and extensive labeling so that anyone can tell what is in any given plastic product. PVC alone might have hundreds of formulations, thus showing once more that the seven types of plastic labeled for recycling is nothing but a cruel joke on society.

To make it easier to fasten down square tiles with screws and remove them later, the flooring should not be made in the cheapest possible way but should be appreciably thicker and more robust. It is always true that a product which is going to be used for a very long lifetime can be designed to be much more robust than a disposable product. There can be recessed holes in the tile to receive the screws and the greater thickness and strength will allow the edges to remain straight and flat. Reinforcements can be incorporated in the tiles to further strengthen them. It might be desirable to use in place of a cheap pressboard subfloor, a dedicated flooring with scored tile outlines and predrilled holes for screws, perhaps even with metal inserts. Many innovations become possible.




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