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Is PVC-free resilient flooring truly the best option for the health of residents and the environment? What exactly is PVC-free resilient flooring and how does it compare to traditional vinyl flooring? While all vinyl flooring contains plasticizers for flexibility, most suppliers in the US have switched to non-phthalate alternatives due to their carcinogenic and unhealthy properties. Even though US producers have developed alternatives, the majority of vinyl flooring is imported from China, making it difficult to ensure it is completely phthalate-free.

PVC-free flooring is beneficial because it does not contain ortho phthalates, eliminating associated concerns. This is a positive aspect. It does include tera phthalates, which have the same effect on flooring without any known negative effects on humans at this time. So, is choosing PVC-free the better option? The reality is that the issue is more complex than it may initially appear.

The Facts:
Plastic, the most widely used material in construction, is present all around us. It can be found in various forms, from lining the interiors of our vehicles to containing the water we drink. In fact, plastic is in almost everything around us, including the credit cards in our wallets.

To isolate plasticizer migration from flooring as a major concern is then to be somewhat naive. It is my opinion then that considering the sea of plastic within which we dwell, PVC in flooring is not going to compromise the health of occupants in a space in which it’s installed unless there is a concern for a legitimate plasticizer migration event from a flooring material that is leaching. And plasticizer always leaches from vinyl materials. For example, you know that oily type film on your windshield that forms, especially in hot weather, even if you don’t smoke? That’s plasticizer leaching from all the plastic components in your car. You’re sitting in a sea of the stuff.

Across the entire luxury vinyl tile and plank market, development is moving at light speed. PVC-free flooring is still in development, and there are challenges in working with the alternative materials these products are made from. Alternative materials to phthalated vinyl include virgin PET, PET from recycled plastic bottles, polyolefin, polypropylene materials, acrylic polymers, ethylene-vinyl acetate, and polyurethane made from soy-based resins. Each of these PVC-free thermoplastics creates its own set of performance circumstances. These can be the same as with typical vinyl flooring, or they can be unique. For instance, while some will have the ability to stick to the floor with commonly used adhesives, polypropylene is a challenge in this regard, as it is inherently hydrophobic, which means it repels water, and most flooring adhesives are water-based. With all of the variables in these products, you’ll be challenged to know what you’re working with and therefore you have to understand the products. To stay out of trouble, always use the adhesive specified or mandated by the flooring manufacturer since not all adhesives are created equal and not all of them will stick to everything you’re installing. Green or Greenwash? To improve materials while also adhering to the ideals of creating a truly green flooring chemistry, developers must design for degradation, design benign or less toxic compounds, and prevent the production of waste. Also, they should consider using renewable feedstocks and benign solvents as well as improving the performance of the flooring material, yielding a longer lifecycle. Using pre or post-recycled content can also affect the performance of resilient flooring materials, and carpet tile backings for that matter. The more recycled content in a product, and the more it is used as that product wastes is recycled, the more compromises can be built into the finished product. And it’s a delicate balance that you are not going to be aware of.

PVC-free flooring ingredients, derived from plants and renewable resources, are becoming more common in the market. These materials, unlike traditional vinyl flooring which is made from petroleum, are not part of the standard chemical stream. However, it should be noted that just because they are bio-based does not automatically guarantee their safety or environmental friendliness compared to nonrenewable PVC flooring.

There are various processes involved in creating PVC-free flooring, such as using vegetable oils, cellulose, starches, acids, and alcohols. In fact, there are hundreds of different methods. Despite popular belief, bioplastics and PVC-free materials are not always considered fully “green”. The characteristics of the final flooring product can vary depending on the production process, which can result in performance challenges similar to those seen with traditional vinyl flooring.

Even with the use of “green” plasticizers, there is still a possibility of leaching from the flooring material. Additionally, dimensional or planar issues may still occur. Furthermore, the potential health effects of these alternative plasticizers and materials on living organisms is still unknown.

In two very recent cases of PVC-free flooring failures, LGM has found stability issues. In one case, the manufacturer brought in an expert to evaluate the problem. Every conceivable type of mitigation was tried and said to be the answer to the problem. When all was said and done, the product did exactly what it had done originally, despite every effort to prove otherwise. The problem was the product.

In another case, the flooring was lifting and cupping. It was also shrinking on the ends. In addition, the flooring emitted an odor of phthalate plasticizer or alcohol, when it was lifted off the substrate, phthalate plasticizer, that was not supposed to be there, as the product was labeled as PVC-free. Even though the product was supposed to be phthalate free, it wasn’t. With most of the products coming from overseas, and particularly Asia, and especially China, you have no idea what you may be actually getting. Just remember, the hype about PVC-free flooring has to be taken with a grain of salt, just like the hype about waterproof flooring. It’s possible that these new products will have some inherent characteristics that could compromise their performance, and frequently the installation firm gets blamed when this occurs, though often it’s the product that’s the problem. Plasticizer Migration with Emulsified Adhesive.

What’s Really Inside?
How is anyone to know whether the product is actually what it is said to be? How can you know if something that you can’t see is or isn’t really there without sophisticated laboratory testing? With all the testing we do on flooring products and materials to determine why they’re doing what they’re doing, and frequently find them to be off, why would content be any different?

The flooring industry trusts that the hard surface flooring product in the box is what it is said to be, but the majority of vinyl flooring products-well over 80% of PVC based and over 90% of PVC-free-are sourced. The company that is selling it, in most cases, did not make it, and, to compound the problem, the people selling or specifying the products often have little knowledge of what they are actually peddling.

Never in the history of the industry has any product category upset the balance of traditional flooring like luxury tile and plank. As the category continues to evolve, the entire industry is on a learning curve and it seems that new components and constructions are introduced daily. Hang on because this ride is going to get wilder.

Our job is to know what the products are and what’s in them and we have very bright people associated with us. I’m the dumbest guy in the group but our intellectual resources are extraordinary. If you need help, guidance or answers we have them – always. No guesswork or opinions.

Our business is to know the answers and we do.