Some materials catch headlines, are held in awe, but not all. Some get little respect, despite having changed the world. They have become commonplace, anonymous, ignored and (particularly if they are cheap) cast aside when no longer wanted. If they had feelings, they would be hurt. This brief series of blogs is to draw attention to their plight.
Reflect for a moment on the differing ways in which plastics are perceived. Polyethylene and Polypropylene have nice, clean images: mild bottles, washing-up bowls, children’s toys. Vinyl (short for Polyvinylchloride, PVC), the third most used plastic after these two, is less fortunate. There is the name, Vinyl, a little too close to venal and vile for comfort. It derives from a nasty monomer, vinyl chloride, CH2=CHCl, that is carcinogenic. Carelessly incinerated, vinyl plastic releases dioxins, persistent environmental pollutants that accumulated in the food chain. The largest use of vinyl is for drain pipes. Perhaps least fortunate of all is that most people neither know nor care about polyvinylchloride. That is a loss. Vinyl has a rich practical, aesthetic, and cultural legacy.
Vinyl, (CH2=CHCl)n, was first synthesized in industrial quantities by one Waldo Sermon, working in the laboratories of BF Goodrich, maker of rubber tyres. The chlorine content gives vinyl fire-resistant qualities. It can be colored (one supplier offers “any color you want”). Doped with UV stabilisers and toughened with plasticizers, it becomes weather resistant and exceptionally durable—desirable properties for drain pipes, flooring, decking and fencing. Its adaptability made it the material of deception—that handbag’s not alligator skin, it’s vinyl. In 2013 the world production of vinyl exceeded 32 million tonnes (30 million cubic meters), comparable with that of aluminium.
And it has cultural as well as sanitary applications: it became the material of music for the millions. The phonograph, invented in 1877, first used wax cylinders, then shellac disks, as the recording medium. Neither worked particularly well. But in 1931, when RCA introduced the Victrolac pressed vinyl disk, recording became a global phenomenon, with its own superstars, golden disks, compilations, and albums. Vinyl remained the material of personal audio entertainment for the next 50 years.
So there you have it. Vinyl, phonetically disadvantaged, trodden under foot, a conduit for sewage, anathema to Green activists, is in reality one of today’s most versatile, colourful, and durable plastics. The digital age has diminished its role as the purveyor of music to the millions, although purists still prefer the vinyl sound. But the cultural legacy lives on, even in our language. Next time you hear a repetitive person described as “sounding like a cracked record”, think of Vinyl.