The world’s most versatile plastic, vinyl has brought safe, versatile, durable, and efficient products to people everywhere for more than 50 years. In your home and throughout your community, vinyl works hard to make your life easier every day.
The scientists who developed vinyl in the 1920s had no idea that their invention would come to play a vital role in our everyday lives — helping make products that are safer, easier to use, clearer, cleaner, more durable, more economical and simply better.
Vinyl is composed of two simple building blocks: chlorine, based on common salt, and ethylene, from natural gas. By employing further chemistry, vinyl can be made flexible, rigid or semi-liquid; clear or colorful; thick or thin – making it the world’s most versatile plastic material.
Use vinyl resin in a rigid state to make PVC pipe and you have a safe, durable material to transport water and safely remove sewage. Use vinyl resin in a flexible format and you can produce blood bags, IV bags and tubing to save lives in hospitals. With its fire resistant nature, use vinyl to produce either jackets, insulation or conduits for electrical wires and cables and you have electrical components that meet or exceed the stringent requirements of standards organizations including the Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
Vinyl is truly one material with infinite uses. All this versatility helps make vinyl the third-largest volume plastic produced in North America. In 2014, U.S. vinyl resin production reached nearly 15 billion pounds. From the vinyl resin producers to those who extrude the resin into pipe, siding, flooring, wallcovering, packaging and energy-efficient windows and roofs, the vinyl industry contributes more than 350,000 jobs and $54B to the U.S. economy.
From Accidental Discovery to Worldwide Acceptance
The world’s most versatile plastic had a rather humble beginning: A rubber scientist during the early 1920s stumbled onto a new material with fantastic properties during his search for a synthetic adhesive. Waldo Semon was intrigued with his finding, and experimented by making golf balls and shoe heels out of the versatile material called polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.
Soon after his discovery, PVC-based products such as insulated wire, raincoats and shower curtains hit the market. As more uses for vinyl were discovered, industry developed more ways to produce and process the new plastic.
Plants manufacturing PVC began to spring up during the ’30s to meet demand for the versatile material. Just a decade after its conception, PVC – commonly known as vinyl – was sought for a variety of industrial applications including gaskets and tubing.
Joining industries across the nation during the ’40s, PVC manufacturers turned their attention to assisting the war effort. Vinyl-coated wire was widely used aboard U.S. military ships, replacing wire insulated with rubber. Vinyl manufacturers were working in high gear as World War II wound down, and they quickly found new markets for the durable plastic. Following the war, news of vinyl’s versatility and flame-resistant properties spread, leading to dozens of commercial uses.
Five companies were making PVC at the century’s midpoint, and innovative uses for vinyl continued to be found during the ’50s and ’60s. A vinyl-based latex was used on boots, fabric coatings and inflatable structures, and methods for enhancing vinyl’s durability were refined, opening the door to applications in the building trades.
Vinyl products quickly became a staple of the construction industry; the plastic’s resistance to corrosion, light and chemicals made it ideal for building applications. PVC piping was soon transporting water to thousands of homes and industries, aided by improvements in the material’s resistance to extreme temperatures. Twenty companies were producing vinyl by 1980.
Today, vinyl is the second largest-selling plastic in the world, and the industry employs more than 100,000 people in the United States alone. Vinyl’s low cost, versatility and performance make it the material of choice for dozens of industries such as health care, communications, aerospace, automotive, retailing, textiles and construction. Rigid as pipe or pliable as plastic wrap, vinyl is a leading material of the 21st century.
Complex Chemistry Based on Common Salt
Like all plastic materials, vinyl results from a series of processing steps that convert hydrocarbon-based raw materials (petroleum, natural gas or coal) into unique synthetic products called polymers. The vinyl polymer is unusual, however, because it is based only in part on hydrocarbon feedstocks: ethylene obtained by processing, or cracking, natural gas or petroleum. The other half of the vinyl polymer is based on the natural element chlorine.
Chlorine gives vinyl two advantages. First, chlorine is derived from brine — a solution of common salt and water, and a readily available, inexpensive commodity. Thus, vinyl is less sensitive to fluctuations in the world oil market than are totally oil dependent polymers.
Second, chlorine has excellent inherent flame retardant properties. These properties are passed on directly to vinyl end-products, making vinyl an excellent choice for applications such as electrical conduit and wiring that require high resistance to ignition and flame spread.
From Monomer to Polymer Product
Through a chemical reaction, ethylene and chlorine combine to form ethylene dichloride which, in turn, is transformed into a gas called vinyl chloride monomer (VCM). A final step, called “polymerization,” converts the monomer into vinyl polymer, a fine-grained, white powder or resin known as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or simply “vinyl.”