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European Scene: January/February 2010

Vinyl is still getting lousy press


February 23, 2010
By John Roper

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I think vinyl is a great material. There, I’ve said it. You know which
side I am on. Vinyl is used in health care and it is used for pipes of
all kinds. The automotive industry uses it – it will be in your car and
mine. It is all over the building trade, both the sheet plastic and
expanded foam versions.

I think vinyl is a great material. There, I’ve said it. You know which side I am on. Vinyl is used in health care and it is used for pipes of all kinds. The automotive industry uses it – it will be in your car and mine. It is all over the building trade, both the sheet plastic and expanded foam versions. So what is it about windows that gets people all riled up? And to the extent that they will use bad argument and false information to prove how evil it is?

You may wonder why I feel the need to make such a statement. Well, I don’t know if you have the same problem in Canada, but in the U.K. and in some parts of the continent – Germany in particular – there is a real down on vinyl windows. In the U.K., over the years, the attacks have been sometimes vitriolic and the people making them – Greenpeace springs to mind – have often not bothered with the facts, much preferring to voice opinions in preference.

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When I was growing up – in the ’50s, since you ask, maybe a touch into the ’60s – people would say,  “It’s only plastic,” implying that the product in question was a cheap, probably Japanese, import. “It’s only plastic” was a term of derision and it seems we are still living with the stigma of this viewpoint. This is in spite of the very real fact that plastic really is one of the more flexible and useful materials humanity has ever worked with. Saying “It’s only plastic” ignores the millions of dollars and massive amounts of research that has gone into making plastic what it is today. But I digress.

The controversy still will not go away and it is vinyl windows that bear the brunt. In the ’80s we had the “killer-double-glazing” headlines in the tabloid papers following one or two fire tragedies. Now we have had a recurrence following a fatal fire, last autumn, in an apartment block in Camberwell, South London.

Instantly the “experts” were falling over themselves to prove that vinyl windows were to blame. Some claimed that plastic window frames helped to spread the fire. Others, that burning vinyl gave off cyanide gas. There was talk of burning plastic dripping down.

So who are these experts and why do they have it in for vinyl windows? I am not aware of any complaint about use of the material in other fields, or even the other vinyl used in buildings. What about the miles of vinyl trunking used to run IT cables around buildings? That never seems to be blamed for causing horrendous fires, possibly because it’s tucked away inside the wall. Out of sight really does equal out of mind for some people.

You never see the headline “Vinyl pipes killing patients,” though if everything the “experts” say about the material were true you would expect the drugs running from intravenous drips to be dissolving nasties from the plastic and injecting them into patients’ veins. Perhaps it is just that windows are visible and to some extent have always provided the target. What about kristallnacht?

The fact is that vinyl is an inert material. It is not at all bad for the environment. It doesn’t release its component parts even when burned – nor does it burn of its own volition; it needs a flame source to be applied to it and then it just chars. Talk of it giving off noxious gas is arrant nonsense. It is eminently recyclable even after its very long life in use. I have even been told (though I am happy to be corrected on the point) that the lead, which we hear so much about these days in the context of windows, once in the material won’t come out again, so won’t actually harm anyone. Of course, lead is not good in its own right and someone somewhere has to process it in the first place, though we seem to manage very well with lead cames for decorated glass.

The “experts” are very clearly inexperts, who seem to be only too happy to show off their complete and total ignorance of the actual facts regarding the subject. But then, you know our definition of an “expert” don’t you? “Ex means ‘past-it’ and a spurt is just a ‘drip’ under pressure.” •


John Roper is the editor for The Installer, The Fabricator, The Conservatory Installer and Glass Works magazines published in the U.K.


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