In January of this year, the Vinyl Institute, the trade association in the US for the vinyl industry, appointed Jay Thomas as its new vice president of Sustainability. Thomas, who has over 20 years' experience in the vinyl industry in a variety of roles, also serves as the executive director of the Vinyl Sustainability Council (VSC), which was founded in partnership with the VI in 2016. In a telephone interview with Sustainable Plastics, Jay discussed the ways in which the vinyl industry today is addressing and improving sustainability.
Jay Thomas’ background is more or less at the intersection of vinyl and sustainability, he said, having served on the board of the Green Building initiative - one of two major Green Building certification programmes in the US - for the past eight years, in addition to having a long career in the vinyl industry.
“The vinyl industry in the US is large, as you can imagine, with more than 3000 vinyl manufacturing facilities and more than 350,000 employees,” he said. “It’s an industry that serves a great many different applications.”
The primary use is large-diameter water piping, although windows, siding, flooring, wall coverings, furniture covering, roofing, wire and cable, packaging are all other important applications, he mentioned. However, with the current negative image of plastics, it became important for the vinyl sector, too, to continue its commitment to sustainability. Concerns have frequently been expressed about legacy additives or about the use of certain plasticisers, and, according to Jay, while these are certainly valid, a tremendous amount of improvement has occurred in the last 40 years.
“It’s a long-lasting product and there are concerns about recycling additives that are no longer used in vinyl production. Solving this issue is something that the vinyl industry around the world is working on. Moving forward, employing best practices in manufacturing, including the elimination of additives such as cadmium and lead is important for the sustainability of the material,” he commented.
It’s also the reason the Vinyl Sustainability Council was formed. The VSC, part of the Vinyl Institute, is committed to advancing sustainability and to understanding what the areas of concern are and making progress on those on a continuous basis.
“Recycling, for example, is a key area for us and doing a better job with the recycling of post-consumer waste is a key area of focus,” he said.
The council is collaborative and self-funded: members work together to develop and implement best practices and innovation leading to continuous improvement throughout the industry. “We now have a consortium of members of about 43 companies and that number is growing,” said Jay. “These include everything from the resin and additive manufacturers, vinyl compounders, product manufacturers all the way through the distributors, retailers and recyclers.”
Building a framework
In order to develop a sustainability strategy and programme able to fulfil its purpose, the Vinyl Sustainability Council conducted a materiality analysis.
“What that simply is, is taking a look at existing literature on the topic of sustainability and vinyl and then surveying the stakeholders, both internally to the industry as well as externally, towards the NGOs, government organisations, academia, customers and so forth,” Jay explained.
“And in that way, to learn how and where the industry could best improve and where they could have the biggest impact.”
This was done with the help of a third-party organisation that helped to review the topics, over a period of over 12 months.
“From that process, three key impact areas emerged where we could move the industry forward. One was emissions: so that is emissions in the air, land, water; health and safety, including community, worker and end user and the third was landfill diversion - a big part of which is recycling,” he said.
Over the past 18 months, efforts have been directed at establishing a baseline for measuring the progress going forward. “It’s a huge industry, so really understanding exactly where we are is a big effort. But once we establish that, we will be able to set our goals going forward. In other words, put a stake in the ground and say: “This is where we are on these three key impact areas and this is our goal, so we can measure and monitor how we’re doing - and report on that back to the industry and stakeholders.”
The VSC has also been working with another third-party organisation, called Sustainable Services Corporation, which is providing support with collecting the data to support goal development.
“Being able to collect the data we need to set the goals – well, it’s a challenge, as not everyone is in the same place on their sustainability journey,” said Jay. “But by the end of this year we’ll be able to report on the goals that we’re setting for the industry going forward,” he added. “It’s a massive undertaking.”
Engaging the industry
After the goals for the three impact areas have been published at the end of this year, a new materiality analysis will subsequently be performed every four to five years in order to maintain an overview of the progress made and to identify opportunities from the market going forward.
Another key element is the rollout of an industry-wide programme called +Vantage Vinyl (https://vantagevinyl.com), which focuses on highlighting sustainability performance in the vinyl value chain, empowering continuous improvement, and providing verified evidence to interest groups. +Vantage Vinyl is open to VSC members and offers a ‘transparent way for stakeholders to see who is committed to the programme’, said Jay.
Participants are required to sign up to work towards achieving certain industry goals.
“We tested the +Vantage Vinyl programme’s design and processes during 2019, our pilot year. The pilot program tracked the verification process from application to goal documentation and verification by GreenCircle, an independent third party. Companies participating in +Vantage Vinyl are subject to an annual verification process provided by such an independent third-party.
Eight companies took part in the pilot and provided feedback, on the basis of which we developed new goals. We would certainly like to have a much larger representation and that’s the goal in the longer term, to get momentum in the programme and to build,” said Jay.