Modern PVC flooring can use plasticizers made from of renewable raw materials.

Even if its main product is woven vinyl flooring, Bolon doesn’t see itself as a flooring manufacturer, but as a design company that manufactures floor coverings. Based in Ulricehamn, Sweden, Bolon has focused on custom-designed floors, earning a committed following among designers, architects and interior designers who appreciate the decorative possibilities of its special designs and collections.

After more than 50 years of manufacturing woven vinyl products, the company’s latest collection is built around a strategic environmental initiative called Bolon® Green, developed to offer flooring products with reduced environmental impacts. Vinyl plastic has earned a reputation as something of an environmental villain, but Bolon is out to prove that PVC, used correctly, can counter that image.

PVC properties

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is one of the most widely used plastics in the world, primarily because its chemical flexibility makes it suitable for a wide variety of applications. Chlorine atoms in the resin make it chemically polar, which means it can be mixed with many different additives to make final products that may be stiff, soft, transparent or colored as needed. PVC is an excellent raw material for any number of processes in the plastics industry, including injection molding, extrusion, calendering (pressing between cylinders) and coating. PVC can be made to hold its shape for a long time, and it’s used extensively in construction industry applications such as piping, electricity cables, window frames and floors. The material’s many other uses include toys and medical equipment.

The development of the new softener has been made possible through close cooperation with universities.

But PVC also has a bad environmental reputation, which can be summed up in three main criticisms:

  • PVC contains chlorine, so incinerating plastic can give rise to hydrochloric acid and hazardous dioxins.
  • PVC plastic contains several types of environmentally harmful stabilizers, plasticizers and flame retardants, including a group of additives known as phthalates, which have been restricted banned or banned in many countries due to suspicions of serious impacts on human health and wildlife.
  • Plastics are manufactured from non-renewable petroleum products, which cause emissions of greenhouse gases when burnt.

These unflattering properties of PVC cause many people to avoid using the plastics when possible. But a lot has happened in recent years, and the environmental performance of PVC has improved substantially without getting a great deal of attention.

A holistic approach

One has the most contested PVC additives has been replaced by more environmentally friendly alternatives. Lead and organotin stabilizers have been replaced with carboxylates such as calcium and zinc soaps. Another example is the elimination of toxic phthalates through a switch to less hazardous substances. A common plasticizer in PVC is DEHP (diethylhexyl phthalate), which has a tendency to migrate out of the plastic material and is suspected of causing hormone disruption in animals and humans.

Bolon avoids DEHP, instead using DINP (di-isononyl phthalate) and DIDP (di-isodecyl phthalate), plasticizers which can be used in flooring materials without creating a risk to human health or the environment. And the story of plasticizers for PVC flooring doesn’t stop there.

Bolon’s environmental initiatives, such as replacement of harmful plasticizers with safer alternatives, are an important factor in the company’s long-term market strategy. Bolon is the first manufacturer of PVC flooring in the world to transition to plastic softeners based on renewable raw materials. The new plant-based additive, Epoxidized Soy Bean Oil (ESBO), has previously been used as a secondary stabilizer in PVC, but Bolon is the first to use the substance as a primary plasticizer in flooring materials. The company’s 2010 Botanic collection includes PVC plastics using soy bean oil, and the company’s goal is to successively expand this application in future collections.

The greening of Bolon’s products and production methods includes increasing the recycling of waste materials and the purchase of surplus from other producers. Operations are certified to the ISO 14001 environmental standard, and Bolon’s products are FloorScore Certified, the U.S. floor industry’s label that allows classification under LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). In addition, Bolon participates in the Vinyl 2010 initiative, an action plan to reduce the PVC industry’s environmental impacts.

Environmental leading edge

So what is the motivation behind Bolon’s investment in improved environmental performance? Bolon® Green “is both a business opportunity and a responsibility,” says Annica Eklund, the company’s CEO. “It’s clear that the demand for green buildings is on the upswing, and for competitive reasons we have to stake out our position in this industry. Bolon has all of its production facilities here in Ulricehamn, which gives us shorter lead times for testing new solutions,” she continues. “The development of the new softener has been made possible through close cooperation with universities, and through our rapid adaptation of the latest research findings.” She also notes that Bolon® Green “will never be completed; it’s an ongoing project that affects all parts of the company.”

Eklund says customer interest in environmentally adapted products is growing steadily. “It’s one of the first issues that comes up,” she says. “It’s just a basic expectation. At the same time, pricing is still paramount. The market isn’t prepared to pay a much higher price for environmental products.”

Do eco-friendly products show equivalent technical performance at the same price points as conventional products? “They absolutely have the same technical performance,” Eklund says. “We can’t make inferior products. With our focus on public spaces such as offices, hotels and shops, we have very high standards to live up to in terms of wear resistance, durability and other properties. Prices for Botanic are slightly higher than comparable products without the the new softener. However, Botanic isn’t our most expensive product overall, but is in the middle of our price range.”

Article posted in May 2010