Stepping towards sustainability

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2014

Dr Mark Everard, author, scientist and broadcaster, argues that good intentions could derail the sustainable journey. 

Voltaire, the French writer and philosopher of the Enlightenment, once said, ‘Perfection is the enemy of the good’. I believe that this sentiment has much relevance to contemporary sustainable development struggles.

In this context, perfection could be construed as meeting all of the principles of sustainability, for example as articulated by the science-based approach of global environmental network The Natural Step (TNS). In the early days of campaigning on such issues, the principal tactics of activists were confrontational, holding a mirror up to businesses, governments and other bodies to highlight gross shortfalls in environmental and ethical practice. At the time, this was justified as a means to raise awareness about issues that had been overlooked for too long, or that were being deliberately ignored, to engender awareness, engagement and, ideally, a positive response.

Several decades later, the world has changed in many ways. Confrontational campaigning is regrettably still necessary

when issues remain disregarded by recalcitrant or wilfully ignorant enterprises or regimes. But the mainstream of society is now far more literate with respect to these concerns, recognising the need to proactively engage with them, whether as a matter of prudent risk management, corporate morality or other motives. We are also increasingly aware that the world cannot change overnight to attain a perfect end-goal. Steady, incremental progress, building stepwise towards a clearly articulated ‘perfect’ longer-term target is not only sensible, but possibly the only viable approach.

In this context, confrontational campaigning (or indeed policy) responding to a current lack of perfection can backfire, potentially derailing committed progress towards its longer-term attainment. Where this occurs, usually through naivety about the need to play a more patient game, the best can certainly become the enemy of the good.

PVC: meeting the challenges

One materials sector that has seen its fair share of both confrontation campaigning and also serious subsequent commitments to engage with the sustainable development agenda is the European PVC industry. Volumes of recycled PVC rose to 444,468t in 2013, up nearly 23% from the previous year despite the adverse economic climate, averting landfill and incineration, resource waste and demand for virgin materials. Further progress was made reducing emissions of organochlorine substances, with additional work addressing risks during transport of major raw materials. The use of lead stabilisers continued to decline across the EU-27, down by 81% relative to 2007, and is en-route to being phased out by the end of 2015. Research into energy reduction in processes and materials has continued, encompassing the feasibility of using alternative renewable materials that may include waste. And, reflecting that PVC products have life cycles spanning all sectors of society, the first VinylPlus Sustainability Forum was held in Turkey in April 2013, spreading awareness across the vinyl industry, including its supply chains, and the UN, EU and other bodies.

Long-term resolution of short-term conflicts

There are tensions between the strategic challenges, as there would be for other materials seeking to attain such a goal in a structured way. For example, the quest for fully sustainable use of additive substances raises short-term conflicts with the drive for continuous substantial increases in the proportion of PVC products recycled at the end of their useful lives. This conflict entails taking a longer-term view, such as that made clear in the TNS approach.

In this instance, it would be madness to demand that all remanufactured PVC should contain zero additives of current concern. While this is an aspiration to which all can agree, making this demand immediately would condemn much of the vast mass of PVC material currently in use in society – in building products, medical applications, toys, pipes, cable, flooring and countless other applications – to ending its life in unmaintainable landfill sites or incinerators, or export outside the EU. A glide path is a more sensible strategy, incrementally leading to cleaner recycled product, potentially blended from virgin and recovered sources. Recognition that material and value recovered from a product makes a contribution relative to disposal makes good sense. This would assure stepwise progress towards the longer-term end-goal in Europe.

Legal considerations

However, legal spectres threaten to condemn PVC and other products to unsustainable disposal. One possible threat is potential reinterpretation of EU REACH legislation. Applied narrowly, civil servants could demand that all PVC is produced with zero content of scheduled materials. At a stroke, this could create insurmountable economic barriers, derailing or entirely killing off the burgeoning recycling business.

This point applies not merely to PVC, but also to a range of other substances in wide use in society, including rubber and other polymers, and potentially also recovered glass, paper and some metals. This has serious implications for life cycle economics and waste of resources. In the case of PVC – already a durable and adaptable substance that can potentially be recycled many times – it could arrest increasing recycling rates.

The second legal spectre is that end-of-life PVC and other resources could fall foul of equally narrowly redefined waste legislation. Across a range of material sectors, this has already erected licensing, economic and bureaucratic blocks that have, at best, impeded progress with resource and value recovery through recycling. It is far from logical that an article such as a PVC window frame or pipe should be considered safe, yet then be regarded as waste when prepared for recycling.

Value and resource recovery

We are not dealing with trivial volumes. Around four million tonnes of PVC is produced annually across the EU, a high proportion of which is used in the construction industry for long-term applications. This huge tonnage either represents a valuable resource or a waste mountain.

If the recycled legacy additive content represented a serious threat, this would be understandable. However, most legacy additives on REACH lists are locked tightly into the PVC plastic matrix – particularly with respect to rigid PVC – so do not leak out and affect people and ecosystems during product life. They can also be captured at end-of-life by recycling infrastructure. It is not clear that environmental and health issues associated with recycling have been compared with manufacture of virgin PVC or indeed alternative substitute materials, to support properly balanced decisions.

The simple question that those who make and implement policy need to address is whether or not sustainability is the intended goal. If it is, then trying to leap immediately to perfection from the starting point of today will create – perhaps catastrophic – kinks in the now well-laid rails to a still distant, yet clearly articulated, destination. If the intent is merely compliance with narrowly defined legislation, the outcome will be the same.


Dr Mark Everard is Associate Professor of Ecosystem Services at the University of West England, pursuing his interests in ecosystem services and systems approaches to sustainable development.

Mark is Vice-President and former Chair of the Institution of Environmental Sciences, a Fellow of the Linnean Society, a former Director and Trustee of the Freshwater Biological Association (FBA),
a founding Director/Trustee of the Bristol Avon Rivers Trust, Technical Adviser to the Thames Rivers Trust, and adviser to the VinylPlus programme among a range of other roles.

VinylPlus Progress Report 2014:

This report highlights the progress against voluntary sustainability commitments by member companies along the PVC value chain in the EU. It covers auditable promises and the tangible steps taken in 2013 towards fulfilling them by 2020 across five strategic challenges, founded
on the TNS principles. To read the report, visit

The five key challenges:

  • Controlled-loop management – working towards the more efficient use and control of PVC throughout its life cycle.
  • Organochlorine emissions – helping to ensure that persistent organic compounds do not accumulate in nature and that other emissions are reduced.
  • Sustainable use of additives – reviewing the use of PVC additives and move towards more sustainable additive systems.
  • Sustainable energy use – helping to minimise climate impacts through reducing energy and raw material use, potentially endeavouring to switch to renewable sources and promoting sustainable innovation.
  • Sustainability awareness – continuing to build sustainability awareness across the value chain, including stakeholders inside and outside the industry, to accelerate resolving our sustainability challenges.