The Greening of LVT: Mannington, Armstrong, Tarkett and others

By Darius Helm

 

Following years of carpet tile taking marketshare and making huge gains in the commercial market, luxury vinyl is now leading growth, and it’s doing so in both the residential and commercial markets. 

Carpet tile got a lot greener over the years, reducing its environmental footprint more than any other flooring type, to meet the demands of the environmentally focused A&D community, and now LVT faces the same challenge. With massive growth in the category and a wave of investment in domestic production, and with most of the leading carpet tile players getting into the game, specifiers are turning their scrutiny toward LVT, which has a long way to go before it can call itself green.

Luxury vinyl in the U.S. is a $764 million industry, according to Market Insights LLC, with annual volume of about 405 million square feet. There are other estimates of the LVT industry that run far higher, generally because there is so much potential for double counting due to all the private labeling. Several prominent offshore producers, for instance, also sell to U.S. flooring firms, some of which even have their own LVT capacity. Currently, 63% of LVT goes to the residential market, and 37% goes to the commercial market. And for now, imports account for over two thirds of domestic consumption. 

STATE OF LVT SUSTAINABILITY
LVT is a relative newcomer to the sustainability game. Like all vinyl products, it has been in more of a defensive mode because of controversy over its ingredients. The most commonly used green certifications for vinyl flooring tend to cover indoor air quality and volatile organic emissions (like FloorScore and Greenguard). The multi-attribute certification, NSF-332, has also gained traction. For now, there are few manufacturer-specific environmental product declarations (EPDs). Health product declarations and ingredient lists are also not widely used.

Most of the environmental progress in LVT (and PVC flooring in general) over the last few years has been in the greening of additives. Vinyl flooring uses two types of additives for structural performance: plasticizers and stabilizers. The plasticizers convey elasticity to the product, making it bendable and malleable and giving it the necessary resilience to survive high foot traffic. Then there are the stabilizers, designed to prevent thermal decomposition when the material is heated.

In the past, stabilizers made of lead were more common, but these days it’s mostly tin. The bigger problem has been with the plasticizers, which for many years were made of phthalates (like DEHP and DOP) implicated in endocrine disruption and reproductive harm. 

The industry first moved to phthalates with higher molecular weights (like DINP), the idea being that these molecules would be too big to leach from the PVC. However, the affiliation with the problematic phthalates proved to be too strong, so in the last couple of years, led by firms like Tarkett, manufacturers have started introducing phthalate replacements, including bio-based plasticizers and a terephthalate called DOTP.

With plastics in general, landfilling is a big issue, because that material is essentially lost forever, a poor strategy for materials made of diminishing fossil fuel supplies. PVC belongs to a class of polymers called thermoplastics, which essentially means that they can be remelted and turned into new product. Some thermoplastics survive the process better than others. PVC, like nylon, is one of the better thermoplastics.

This thermoplastic quality makes PVC a good candidate for recycling and reclamation, but so far the industry has not seen much post-consumer recycled material. For PVC to become a valid sustainable product, it will have to be kept out of the waste stream, and this is one of the issues manufacturers are currently struggling with.

MEGA MILLS TAKE ON LVT
In the last year or two, the entire LVT landscape has been transformed. Several manufacturers, including all of the big carpet mills, with the exception of Interface, have jumped into the category with both feet, and many have started building their own LVT facilities. 

Armstrong, which was already producing some high end LVT at its facility in Kankakee, Illinois (Alterna and Alterna Reserve) has expanded that facility and additionally is spending $41 million to convert a sheet facility in Lancaster to produce LVT. The firm will eliminate most of its LVT imports when production begins in Lancaster less than a year from now.

IVC, which just started producing sheet vinyl domestically three years ago, and which completed construction of an LVT facility in Belgium at the end of 2011, is now building an LVT plant next to its sheet plant in Dalton, an $80 million investment that should start yielding product in the first half of next year. 

Then there’s Shaw, which is converting its Ringgold, Georgia area rug facility to produce LVT, an investment of over $100 million. Production is slated to begin in the third quarter of next year. And Mohawk, which has publicly hinted about its interest in domestic production, will start selling LVT from its new Belgian facility next year. Tarkett, which already produces in the U.S., has also invested in its operation.

However, the biggest player in the LVT business is Mannington, which acquired Amtico two years ago to become the biggest LVT producer in the world. The firm makes LVT in the U.K. as well as in two locations in the U.S., both in Georgia—in Conyers and Madison. Over the last year the firm has expanded its Conyers facility, doubled extrusion capacity at its U.K. facility and invested $50 million in its Madison facility—a three phase expansion. The first phase should be completed early next year, doubling capacity and adding 220 new jobs.

In all, well over a quarter billion dollars have been invested in new domestic LVT capacity. And a lot of that comes from big carpet mills that have well-established green programs for their commercial carpet. These mills have staked their reputation on how much they have improved the environmental profile of their carpet offering, and over the last two decades they have made great strides. For instance, in the case of Interface, arguably the leader in the greening of commercial carpet (and one of the few large mills not currently selling vinyl products), 49% of all the material it produces is now either recycled or made of rapidly renewable materials. Shaw, Tandus Centiva, Mohawk, Mannington, J+J Flooring, Bentley and Beaulieu all have sophisticated green carpet programs as well as corporate-wide programs for reductions in waste, water and energy derived from fossil fuels.

This embrace of LVT by carpet mills is part of the reason that the LVT category is suddenly under the green lens. Luxury vinyl has been growing rapidly in the commercial market, displacing everything from VCT to ceramic tile and also generating significant organic growth by offering convincing hardwood looks for high performance environments that real hardwood would struggle to endure. A lot of that LVT will now be coming from these top carpet mills, and the architects and designers specifying the products will expect the mills’ resilient flooring to reflect their existing environmental philosophy. It relates to the implicit promise of the brand and, ultimately, to the brand’s reputation, so these manufacturers realize the importance of greening their LVT.



VINYL AT A GLANCE

RAW MATERIALS: PVC is a unique plastic. It’s the only polymer whose primary raw material is not fossil fuels. In PVC’s case, 57% of its raw material is derived from salt (sodium chloride). 

ADDITIVES: Flexible PVC uses two main additives: plasticizers and stabilizers. The plasticizers keep the product flexible, while the stabilizers prevent thermal decomposition when the product is heated up. Heat stabilizers are mostly made of tin, along with calcium and zinc, or organic stabilizers and plasticizers are increasingly made of bio-based materials or DOTP, a terephthalate that is widely considered to be benign. 

STABILITY: PVC is touted for its stability and inertness. PVC without plasticizers is inflexible, and it’s often used for long-term functions, like as underground pipes, because of its inherent stability at a molecular level. Vinyl monomer has been detected in landfills, and studies by the California Air Resources Board have shown it to derive from natural processes. Some PVC from the 1970s or earlier was known to have monomer in it that had not converted, but this doesn’t happen with today’s processes. When it does break down, say through pyrolysis (thermal decomposition in the absence of oxygen), hydrogen chloride is released, prohibiting any conversion back to monomer.

TOXIC ISSUES: Incinerating vinyl produces dioxin, thanks to the chlorine in its chemistry. For the same reason, other materials with chlorine present similar hazards; all animals and plants release dioxins upon incineration. The real issue with dioxins and other dangerous chemicals is exposure, and dioxin volume from PVC incineration falls well below danger levels and is far lower than dioxin released from forest fires and barbeques.

VINYL MONOMER: Vinyl chloride is dangerous. Back in the 1970s, when it was even used as a propellant in aerosol sprays, workers at PVC plants got cancer from exposure. After that, production processes were put in place to prevent exposure, and since then there have been no issues. However, it’s still a dangerous chemical. Toward the end of 2012, a train derailment in New Jersey spilled 180,000 gallons of vinyl chloride into a creek, potentially exposing many neighborhoods to the carcinogen. 

 

CAPACITY AND DISTRIBUTION 
This vast increase in domestic capacity means that many offshore producers will have to find new markets for their products. While some folks in the industry have expressed concern about over-capacity, others are convinced that the market is growing at a fast enough pace to easily accommodate increased capacity. Some foreign producers are also investing in capacity. Novalis, for instance, is expanding its facility in Zhenjiang, China by 40% and anticipates that increased sales to Europe and emerging markets will make up for share loss in the North American market.

When it comes to sustainability, both importers and the domestic flooring producers that import LVT may have to make a case for the sustainability of their product compared to products manufactured domestically. But while domestically produced LVT has an environmental advantage over product made halfway across the world and shipped to U.S. ports, it’s not always as big an advantage as it seems.

For one thing, according to the Network for Transport and the Environment, travel by sea is over ten times more efficient than travel over land by truck—and about four times more efficient than rail transport. So shipping product 6,500 miles from Shanghai to Los Angeles uses less energy than it does to truck the same product from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, New Mexico—all things being equal. This means that a low environmental footprint can have a lot to do with how product is transported regionally, and in many cases that can have a bigger impact than the long sea voyage.

There’s also the issue of the transportation of the raw materials that make up the product. Sourcing can make a big difference. For instance, if all the raw materials were produced in Shanghai (which of course they’re not), then LVT shipped from a Shanghai LVT manufacturer could easily have a lower environmental footprint than product manufactured in the interior of the U.S. using the same raw material source.

The point is that the list of issues that heavily impact the sustainability of LVT is very long, and it includes transportation, recycled content, VOCs, recyclability, green chemistry, low manufacturer emissions, waste reduction, water reuse and renewable energy use, not to mention two of the most fundamental attributes of sustainable flooring—the lifespan of the material in its intended use and how much material is used. Some of the greatest green progress in the carpet tile industry has been through dematerialization, or using less product to do the same job.

GREEN CHEMISTRY VS. POST-CONSUMER CONTENT
One of the first firms to offer post-consumer content in its LVT was Tandus Centiva, back when it was just Centiva. It had post-consumer content ranging from 4% to 5% alongside 25% to 30% post-industrial content. Following that, the firm decided to move away from phthalate plasticizers—and by the end of this year all of its LVT will be phthalate-free. Consequently, Tandus Centiva will no longer be offering post-consumer recycled content in its LVT, because that would be a route for phthalates to make their way back into its products. The firm anticipates taking back LVT with green chemistry, but that’s down the road several years and will entail clearing several hurdles as well.

Many LVT producers are facing the same dilemma. There’s demand for products with post-consumer recycled content and, perhaps more importantly, there’s a lot of vinyl flooring clogging up landfills. But these phthalate issues are not going away, so it’s likely that the general movement among producers, many of whom have already started replacing phthalates in their own products, will be to forgo post-consumer content entirely.

One possible way to use waste vinyl is to send it into a different waste stream. For instance, if all recycled vinyl flooring went into PVC carpet backings or a different vinyl product like VCT or sheet vinyl, then after a number of years, phthalates will end up concentrated in easily identified product types, clearing the way for the reclamation of phthalate-free LVT. But no matter what the solution, it’s likely that, at least for now, large volumes of vinyl flooring will continue to flow into landfills.

GREEN NEWS FROM PRODUCERS
The global industry leader, Mannington, is rapidly increasing its domestic capacity and therefore reducing or ending relationships with its offshore providers. The firm, which turns 100 next year, has been running a VCT reclamation program for a few years on the East Coast. Though the program itself is not that big and is constantly challenged with securing enough volume to take back, it has helped Mannington understand the intricacies of recycling and reclamation, and that should help the firm in its LVT reclamation, which it has already started to work on with large customers and flooring contractor partners.

One reason that LVT reclamation should work better than VCT reclamation is the significantly higher value of the product. After all, VCT has the lowest PVC content of all vinyl flooring. On top of that, VCT is steadily losing share, while LVT is rapidly gaining share. Like many firms, Mannington is also assessing different plasticizers to replace phthalates, with developments anticipated in a few months.

Beyond LVT, the firm has introduced a PVC-free sheet product called Enlighten. It’s a polyolefin rubber composite, priced comparably to rubber products, though it’s lighter and easier to install. 

Another major domestic player is Tarkett, which offers LVT both through its Tandus Centiva division and its Tarkett Commercial division, which includes Johnsonite. Both LVT programs are largely made in Alabama, though at different facilities.

Tandus Centiva recently launched Venue, a new product line with a 20 mil wearlayer (most of its products have 30 mil wearlayers). It’s made in Alabama, as are the firm’s Victory and Contour products. Its Event line is made in Japan. Tandus Centiva started moving away from phthalates in 2010. The Victory and Venue lines are currently phthalate free, with Contour close behind and Event to follow by the end of the year.

The firm will focus its recycling efforts on post-industrial content until such a time when strategies and technologies are developed to reclaim only LVT with green chemistry.

Tarkett also does VCT reclamation, and it’s currently ramping up its collection network by partnering with some of its largest distributors as consolidators, bringing back not just old VCT but also installation waste. All of its LVT under the Johnsonite brand is phthalate free.

Tarkett has also embraced the cradle-to-cradle (C2C) philosophy. It has a range of C2C certifications for its products, and it has also partnered with Michael Braungart’s Enviromental Protection & Encouragement Agency (EPEA) to produce environmental health statements (EHS) for its products. The advantage of an EHS over, for instance, an HPD or a C2C certification, is that an EHS goes beyond looking at materials as hazards and also addresses the all-important issue of exposure.

For the last few years, Armstrong has been making its high end Alterna and Alterna Reserve lines domestically in its Kankakee, Illinois facility while importing its other lines, like Natural Creations and Luxe Plank. Now it’s converting a facility on its Lancaster, Pennsylvania campus to manufacture LVT, starting next year, at which point the majority of its offering will be made in the U.S. Its products made in Kankakee currently use DOTP plasticizer.

The firm has started to produce EPDs for its specific product lines (generic industry EPDs already exist). It’s already published them for linoleum, VCT and its Migrations and Striations polyester composition tile, a PVC-free product with bio-based content.

The firm also does VCT reclamation, and this summer its North American volume passed the six million pound mark. The firm channels reclaimed product through its facilities in California, Illinois and Mississippi.

Shaw Industries has been selling LVT for a few years, but now it’s going to be manufacturing it. At the beginning of this year, the firm announced that it is getting out of the area rug business and converting its rug facility in Ringgold, Georgia to produce LVT. The $4.8 billion firm, which is part of Berkshire Hathaway, also sells heterogeneous and homogeneous sheet vinyl. 

The firm’s current LVT offering includes a floating floor called Quiet Cover, whose 72% recycled content includes some post-consumer material (which includes phthalates), while its gluedown products focus on green chemistry with DOTP as a plasticizer and therefore don’t have post-consumer content.

Mohawk Industries has taken a similar approach. At the NeoCon show earlier this summer, the firm launched its LVT program, 115 SKUs in six styles, and some feature green chemistry while others have post-consumer content. Its Why Y line uses soy-based plasticizers for up to 24% bio-based content, while its Hot & Heavy line includes 59% recycled content, of which 29% is post-consumer.

Beaulieu was sourcing LVT through Canada’s LSI but is now creating new partnerships through a sophisticated operation it has launched in China. The firm has had a lab, called Quality Assurance Veritas, in Shanghai for about two years, and it uses it to test product to make sure it meets specs and also as a quality control check before shipping to the U.S. 

The firm also sends its people to its manufacturing partners—most of its product comes from China but some is shipped from South Korea—to monitor production runs and do random testing. In all, the firm is sourcing from 12 different plants. Prior to setting up the Shanghai lab, the firm was rejecting 80% of product; now it rejects only 8%.

Another major LVT player is Novalis, a Chinese manufacturer known for the quality of its products, which are sold in the U.S. market through multiple channels. The firm has two plants in China, one of which is being expanded by 40%, and according to the firm it’s the largest single-location LVT plant in the world. 

This year, 60% to 65% of the firm’s revenues come from the U.S., and the firm expects that to drop to 50% by 2017, with the rest split between Europe and emerging markets.

Novalis’ LVT features soy-based plasticizers, making bio-based content approximately 25% of the product’s total weight, so it doesn’t offer post-consumer content. However, its products feature post-industrial content in the form of manufacturing waste. And in the next few weeks it will finish rolling out both HPDs and EPDs for its LVT. The firm also recycles all of its internal waste and all of its water as well.

Parterre, which has been in the LVT business for 23 years, sources its product from Taiwan through a longstanding manufacturing partnership. The firm is in the midst of getting FloorScore certification for its products, a process that should be completed by the end of next year.

Parterre’s products have up to 45% recycled content, and about 20% of that is post-consumer. The recycled content goes into the backing.

Metroflor, one of the early pioneers in the LVT business, until recently focused its product line on the residential and light commercial markets. But earlier this year the firm launched its Aspecta brand, which is focused solely on the commercial sector, with a new 100 SKU line of products. 

All of the firm’s LVT products have FloorScore certification, as does its Prevail pressure-sensitive adhesive. Aspecta is also NSF-332 certified to the Platinum level—and more certifications are coming for other Metroflor brands. The firm has also done a product transparency declaration (see box on RFCI) for Aspecta, as well as for most of its adhesives.

In addition, Metroflor has formalized its Revise reclamation and recycling program. Currently, it works through a third party to turn reclaimed flooring and scraps into vinyl products like car mats.



RFCI UPDATE

The Resilient Floor Covering Institute, whose members manufacture not just vinyl, but also rubber, linoleum and cork flooring, played a big role in the development of NSF-332, the multi-attribute resilient flooring assessment standard that has been out for over four years. And its FloorScore certification has long been a standard for VOCs and indoor air quality.

Last fall, RFCI introduced its Product Transparency Declaration (PTD), which is designed to provide information about what’s inside a resilient product. It goes beyond HPDs (health product declarations) because it identifies not just the ingredients but also the risk of exposure. For instance, an HPD will list hazardous materials, but it will not distinguish between materials on, say, the surface of the product versus those embedded deep into the backing or bound by chemical composition. 

The PTD identifies exposure risks for both building occupants and contractors, and it also identifies VOC emissions and heavy metals.

In order to refine and improve the PTD, RFCI asked ASTM to develop the declaration into an ANSI consensus-based standard. So far it has been through two rounds of balloting, the last one ending on July 7. Further recommendations are currently being reviewed in preparation for an additional ballot.


Copyright 2014 Floor Focus 


Related Topics:HMTX, Mohawk Industries, Novalis Innovative Flooring, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Metroflor Luxury Vinyl Tile, Mannington Mills, Tarkett, Parterre Flooring Systems, Interface, Beaulieu International Group, Armstrong Flooring