Since its invention over 100 years ago, vinyl has gone on to become one of the most important and commonly used materials in the world today. It is found in a mind-boggling array of applications, and it is practically impossible to live without it.
But what is vinyl? To answer this question, in this post we look at the history of vinyl and talk about some of its most important uses. We also discuss the problems associated with it and some possible solutions, giving you a comprehensive introduction to this ubiquitous material.
Overview – Early History
Vinyl, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to give it its full name, is a synthetic plastic polymer that is tough and durable and also has flame-retardant properties. These qualities make it suitable for a wide range of applications, leading to it being labeled “the world’s most versatile plastic”.
It was first created in 1872 by a German chemist named Eugen Baumann. However, the earliest forms of this material were rigid and sometimes brittle, and so uses for it was limited.
This changed in the mid-1920s when American inventor Waldo Semon came up with a method for plasticizing the material, making it more flexible and creating a material that was ideal for all kinds of purposes.
An early application of this new material was in making pipes, still among the most important uses of PVC today, but other uses were soon found.
During the Second World War, it was produced in large quantities for a range of military uses – for example, insulating wire aboard US warships – and after hostilities ceased, it quickly became a common feature of civilian life too.
Vinyl in the modern world
Since then, it has become ubiquitous in the modern world and is found everywhere from the construction and healthcare industries to everyday items like plastic bottles and bank cards.
However, it is not without its problems, and the same qualities that make it such a useful material have also led to serious issues.
Since it is extremely resistant and doesn’t break down naturally, it has contributed significantly to the current global plastic crisis, and the build-up of plastics in natural environments all around the world is creating a severe and growing ecological disaster.
This means that while PVC remains a hugely important material in all walks of life, at the same time, the world needs to work towards weaning itself off the excessive use of plastics.
PVC is now the world’s third-most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer (after polyethylene and polypropylene), with around 40 million tons being produced each year.
Properties and types
PVC exists in two main forms, rigid PVC and flexible PVC. In its rigid form, it can be used for things like bank cards or bottles, but with the addition of plasticizers, it becomes more flexible, opening it up to a whole range of other uses.
Other additives can be included during the production of PVC to alter its properties. For example, one of the most important additives is heat stabilizers, which are included to reduce the degradation of PVC that sets in at higher temperatures.
It has good insulating properties and is also chemically resistant to acids, salts, bases, fats, and alcohols. It can also be made resistant to some – although not all – solvents.
As you can see, with all these advantageous properties, PVC lends itself to a wide range of applications, and nowadays, it is found almost everywhere. Here are a few of its most important uses in the modern world.
One of the very first uses for PVC when it was first invented was in piping, and this is still the most important use of the material worldwide.
It is lightweight, inexpensive, and low maintenance, and it is also extremely easy to work with, all properties that make it the perfect choice for this use.
For this reason, around half of all PVC production in the world is destined for use in piping.
2. Insulation for electric cables
As we already noted, during the Second World War, PVC was used as insulation for wire aboard warships, and to this day, it is still a favored material for protecting electrical cables.
Due to its specific insulating properties, it is widely used for medium or low voltage cables.
PVC is tough and durable, weather-resistant, waterproof, and low maintenance, all of which make it the perfect choice for many aspects of construction, so let’s have a look at a few of them in more detail.
Vinyl is a particularly popular option for affordable, durable flooring, especially in areas that need to be resistant to water.
It is often compared to laminate flooring, and it has an advantage over this type of flooring because laminate contains a core that is made from wood by-products.
This means if water penetrates the laminate, it will damage the core, and usually, the whole floor will then need to be replaced.
Since modern vinyl floors are 100% waterproof, this is not a problem when using vinyl, making it a good option in areas that are likely to have puddles of water on them, such as family bathrooms.
There are two main types of vinyl floors, sheet vinyl flooring, and panel flooring.
- Panel flooring is easy to fit since it consists of individual pieces similar to tiles, with each one fitting snuggly into the one next to it.
- Sheet vinyl flooring, on the other hand, needs to be cut to measure, making it a more difficult option for DIY installation.
A vinyl floor can last for up to 20 years or longer, is easy to clean, and is relatively inexpensive. However, if you want the most realistic tile or wood imitation possible – and you don’t need to worry too much about water – a laminate floor probably just about edges it.
Vinyl is also a popular material for applications such as window frames, windowsills, and glass door frames. This is unsurprising due to its many favorable qualities.
It is often used as a substitute for painted wood and is commonly found in newly constructed buildings with glazed windows. It is also used to replace wooden fixtures when adding double glazing to older buildings.
Among the qualities that make it such a suitable choice for applications such as these are that it is such a flexible material to build with, it is inexpensive and it is a low-maintenance choice for homeowners.
It is strong and durable and is resistant to rot, rust, corrosion, blistering, flaking, and insect infestation, all of which are advantages over traditional wood. It never needs to be repainted and retains its color well – PVC windows and doors can easily last up to 30 years and more.
Vinyl fencing, decking and railing
The use of PVC in applications such as fencing, decking, railing, gazebos, decorative bridges, and more has exploded in recent years.
Again, this is unsurprising due to the specific qualities of vinyl and the advantages it has over traditional materials such as wood or metals.
Its only real disadvantage is that it can seem “plasticky” or “fake” in some situations when compared with traditional building materials.
4. Other uses
Although the uses we have mentioned above are among the most important, due to its extreme versatility, vinyl is found in an extremely wide and varied range of other applications.
Among the earliest uses was in vinyl records, which finally won the battle against the phonograph cylinder by around the early 1910s.
Vinyl records continued to be used by DJs, especially those playing dance music, well after CDs become the preferred medium among regular consumers.
Although vinyl records were eventually superseded by digital music even among DJs, the format has enjoyed a renaissance among music enthusiasts in recent years, with a huge increase in production of vinyl records compared with just 10 or 20 years ago.
Another important use is in healthcare, especially in single-use containers and tubing, for example, in containers for blood or urine samples. PVC is suitable for uses such as this due to its low cost, durability, and ease of sterilization, among other qualities.
Vinyl, along with polyurethane, is also commonly used in waterproof protectors, for example in waterproof mattress covers. These are used to cover children’s mattresses and can also be found in hotels. Vinyl is also used in waterproof protectors for walls, for example.
Beyond this, vinyl is found in an almost limitless range of other uses, including clothing, tarpaulin, shower curtains, toys, musical instruments and more.
Despite all the advantages of vinyl, it isn’t without its controversies.
One of the main issues concerns the use of phthalates as a plasticizer in its production, and evidence is now emerging that this group of substances may have implications for human health, although the science is currently inconclusive.
For example, various studies have concluded that the phthalates diisononyl phthalate (DINP) and diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP) have no adverse effect on human health in a range of common uses.
However, some similarities can be seen with what happened with bisphenol A (BPA). This was a substance found in some plastics that was subsequently found to have a deleterious effect on human health.
It was largely replaced by bisphenol S (BPS), but this is now also thought to cause similar problems.
For this reason, many people prefer to be cautious with phthalates because, even if no evidence is currently available definitively proving they are harmful, this doesn’t preclude the possibility that evidence will emerge in the future.
One of the very properties that makes vinyl such as useful material, the fact that it is tough and durable and doesn’t decompose, is also the same property that has led to a global plastic pollution crisis.
When it finds its way into the environment, PVC, along with other similar plastics, take an extremely long time to break down, often several hundred years.
It is estimated that since the 1950s, when plastic production really began to take off, around 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced, of which vinyl makes up a significant proportion.
If plastics are not disposed of properly, they often find their way into waterways and eventually, the sea, and beaches around the world are now polluted with plastic items originating in distant countries.
Furthermore, when plastic enters the sea, it is broken down by wind and sunlight into microplastics, which are then ingested by animals. These can then work their way up the food chain and are eventually ingested by humans too.
The average human now ingests 70,000 pieces of microplastic each year.
This major global crisis is not due to vinyl alone but rather to plastics in general. The main problem comes from single-use plastics that are often only used for a just few minutes before being discarded.
The solution is to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of single-use plastics while at the same time finding the best ways for disposing of plastics like vinyl that are important in applications such as construction.
Recycling or disposal
Scrap vinyl can be recycled into a wide variety of useful products, helping to reduce the amount of pollution created by this material.
At the same time, since the manufacture of new PVC requires the use of crude oil, recycling vinyl also helps increase its sustainability.
With modern technology, it has become possible to safely incinerate vinyl (and other plastics), and this is what happens to an increasing proportion of it.
However, huge amounts of vinyl and other plastics are still destined for landfill, a situation that is unsustainable in the long term.
An invaluable material that needs to be used correctly
Vinyl is such an important material in the modern world that it’s hard to imagine living without it. It has so many uses, and it is inexpensive and easy to work with.
The challenge in the coming years will be to work out how we can continue to use vinyl – and other similar plastics – in a safe and ecological way that will reduce the lasting impact it has on the planet.