Insights from industry

Plasticisers And Phthalates - An Introduction

Maggie Saykali, ECPI Sector Group Manager, talks to AZoM about the work of ECPI on plasticisers and the benefits and potential risks of phthalates.

Could you please give a brief overview of the European Council for Plasticisers and Intermediates and outline what it aims to achieve?

The European Council for Plasticisers and Intermediates (ECPI) is an association based in Brussels representing the eight major manufacturers of plasticisers, alcohols and acids in Europe.

The aim of ECPI is to provide clear and concise science-based information about the many applications of plasticisers, including phthalates, and their safe use. Thanks to the extensive knowledge of the industry and its wealth of scientific data, ECPI is able to provide valuable input to legislative and regulatory authorities, non-government organisations, consumer groups and all other stakeholders. It encourages an open dialogue between these groups and it actively supports research programmes.

Furthermore, ECPI regularly conducts and commissions its own research projects and maintains constant contact with manufacturing companies that rely upon plasticisers for the production of everyday plastic items such as flooring, wall covering, cables, automotive parts, coated fabrics and medical devices.

ECPI itself is a member of the Cefic group – could you tell us a little more about this group and its background?

ECPI is a sector group of CEFIC, the European Chemical Industry Council, which represents the interests of the European chemical industry. CEFIC was founded in 1972 and today it brings together 29,000 large, medium and small chemical companies in which directly provide 1.2 million jobs and account for 21% of the world’s chemical production.

Every day, CEFIC interacts on behalf of its members with international and EU institutions, non-governmental organisations, the international media, and other stakeholders.

Who are the members of ECPI and do these companies all work within the same sector?

Our members are structured in two different groups according to the type of phthalate plasticisers they manufacture.

  • Low molecular weight phthalate producers: Arkema (France), Zak (Poland), Deza (Czech republic), and Oxochimie (France).
  • High molecular weight phthalate producers: BASF (Germany), Evonik (Germany), ExxonMobil (Belgium) and Perstorp (Sweden).

What are Plasticisers? How are these produced?

Plasticisers are colourless, odourless, organic chemicals used to soften PVC and other polymers creating a whole new world of high performing applications and uses. These include a variety of durable goods such as cables, roofing membranes, flooring or wall coverings used in the construction, transport and telecommunication sectors.

Typically, these plasticisers are esters that have low vapour pressure (therefore low volatility) and good heat stability. Most of them are chemically inert. There have been over 10,000 esters suggested, with over 300 different commercial launches, of which 50 to 100 are in commercial use. Today, nearly 6 million tonnes of plasticisers are used every year throughout the world, including 1.1 million in Europe.

Phthalates are the most commonly used plasticisers. They are manufactured by reacting phthalic anhydride with alcohol(s) which range from methanol and ethanol (C1/C2) up to tridecyl alcohol (C13), either as a straight chain or with some branching.

Phthalates form a diverse family of chemical substances split into two major sub-groups depending on their molecular weight. High molecular weight phthalates are those with seven or more carbon atoms in their backbone. Low phthalates have three to six carbon atoms in their backbone.

The two groups have very different properties, effects, and classification. In Europe, phthalates represent about 80% of all plasticisers; close to three quarters are high phthalates.

What types of products are plasticisers used in? What are some of the benefits of using plasticisers?

Today, over 90% of all plasticisers consumed in Europe are employed in flexible PVC applications, largely for the construction, automotive and wire & cable sectors. Concrete applications include both indoor and outdoor cables, roofing membranes, flooring, wall coverings, flexible tubing, hoses, mastics and sealants, as well as inflatable structures which have seen a recent surge in popularity in a range of modern and innovative buildings.

Other everyday products include synthetic leather for luggage or sports equipment, footwear, tablecloths, stationery and automotive applications. Certain plasticisers also find their way into cling films, closures, medical devices and toys as well as non-PVC applications such as coatings, rubber products and adhesives.

Flexible PVC is an affordable, durable and lightweight material which requires virtually no maintenance and can be recycled when it reaches its end of life. Specialty plasticisers help enhancing the heat and cold resistance of PVC products such as cables or automobile dashboards.

What are some of the key safety, health and environmental issues related to plasticisers? What is the difference between high and low phthalates?

The plasticiser family is a very large one and therefore there are many differences when it comes to health and environment. Phthalates have undergone extensive testing for possible health and environmental effects and are thus amongst the most widely researched of all chemical substances. In Europe, the European Commission, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and EU Member States have undertaken 10-year-long comprehensive scientific assessments of major high and low phthalates under the EU Risk Assessment Regulation.

  • High molecular weight phthalates (DINP, DIDP, DPHP, DIUP, and DTDP): Risk assessments have shown positive results regarding the safe use of this group of substances. They all have been registered for REACH and do not require any classification for health and environmental effects, nor are they on the Candidate List for Authorisation. High phthalates represent close to 75% of the phthalates market in Europe.
  • Low molecular weight phthalates (DEHP, DBP, DIBP and BBP): Risk assessments have led to their classification and labelling as Category 1B Reproductive agents. They have been registered under REACH but are included in the EU Candidate List based on their hazard classification and will therefore have to go through the REACH Authorisation process. These plasticisers will be phased out by the EU by February 2015 unless an application for authorisation is made before July 2013 and an authorisation granted.

For over 40 years, extensive studies have been conducted to evaluate the effects of phthalates in the environment. Improved analytical techniques have enabled more reliable measurements in a very wide range of water, sediment, soil, plant and animal samples. The main conclusion is that the most commonly used phthalates are all readily biodegradable and do not bio-magnify up the food chain, thus posing no threat to our environment.

What can be done to make products that use phthalates safer?

Phthalates are tightly regulated in Europe. The move to high phthalates has taken over 20 years and billions of Euros of investment in production capacity, applications development, as well as health and environmental testing necessary to develop alternative high volume substances used by tens of thousands of companies throughout the supply chain.

However, health scares associated with phthalates plasticisers and PVC are still being heard on a daily basis. This is due to the fact that differences between high and low phthalates are not well understood by the general public and the media and so they tend to be lumped together in one single group. Policy-makers on the other hand tend to be well aware of the differences and this is why high phthalates are considered by EU authorities as being safe for use while low phthalates are tightly regulated.

ECPI is a founding member of VinylPlus – could you go into more detail regarding this initiative? How does this build on Vinyl 2010?

VinylPlus is the 10 year sustainability programme of the European PVC industry which will give continuity to the work accomplished by Vinyl 2010 taking the next important steps in tackling the sustainability challenges for PVC. There is a new, larger set of more ambitious targets ranging from technical goals regarding emissions, recycling technologies or the sustainable use of additives, renewable energy and materials to the need to raise awareness and understanding of the importance of sustainable development. The goal is to establish a long-term framework for the ongoing sustainable development of the PVC value chain.

The VinylPlus programme has been developed through an open process of stakeholder dialogue, including the industry, NGOs, regulators, public representatives and users of PVC. Each of the challenges is based on The Natural Step System Conditions for a Sustainable Society.

VinylPlus Vinyl 2010 helped creating a sustainable development framework for the PVC industry in Europe. Concretely, the programme managed to collect and recycle hundreds of thousands of tonnes of end-of-life PVC products every year. Since Vinyl 2010 was launched in the year 2000, more than a million tonnes of PVC have been recycled in Europe (257,084 in 2011) of which about 45% corresponds to flexible PVC collected from applications such as cables, flooring and coated fabrics. Cadmium stabilisers have been phased out and lead stabilizer will have been completed substituted by 2015.

Who else is involved in VinylPlus?

VinylPlus brings together the entire PVC industry chain, represented by its four founding members:

  • ECVM (European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers), representing the 13 European PVC resin producing companies which account for almost 100% of the current total EU-27 PVC resin production. These businesses operate around 60 different plants spread over 35 sites and employ approximately 10,000 people.
  • ESPA (European Stabilisers Producers Association), representing 11 companies which produce more than 98% of the stabilisers sold in Europe. They employ some 5,000 people.
  • ECPI (European Council for Plasticisers and Intermediates), representing the 8 major European plasticiser and intermediate producers that employ approximately 1,200 people in plasticiser production.
  • EuPC (European Plastics Converters), representing close to 50,000 companies in Europe that produce over 45 million tonnes of plastics products of various types every year. EuPC estimates that around 21,000 of these businesses (many of which are SMEs), employing over half a million people, are involved in the conversion of PVC into final home and industrial products.

In addition, there are about 120 individual partner companies who actively participate on VinylPlus though the Vinyl Foundation.

Where can people find more information regarding your work and information on plasticisers?

ECPI has developed as a one-stop-shop for all information related to flexible PVC, plasticisers and phthalates. We are in the midst of launching the German – and soon also the French – version of the site.

This website features news and press releases as well as useful factsheets in six different languages summarising the most important information about plasticisers. There is also a video in English, German and French explaining what flexible PVC is and the role of phthalates and other plasticisers.

Do you believe there will be any significant changes in the Plasticiser industry over the next few years?

Certainly. Due to market and regulatory pressures, the industry has already gone through lots of changes in the past decade moving closer towards high phthalates and other specialty plasticisers which are becoming quite popular in some specific applications. This natural progression will continue and even speed up due to the fact that low phthalates DEHP, DBP, BBP and DIBP are bound to be phased out by 2015 unless specific authorisation is granted for certain applications. The big challenge for the industry in the near future is to make sure that the differences amongst plasticisers are effectively communicated and understood by consumers, media, industry and policy-makes alike.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.

G.P. Thomas

Written by

G.P. Thomas

Gary graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class honours degree in Geochemistry and a Masters in Earth Sciences. After working in the Australian mining industry, Gary decided to hang up his geology boots and turn his hand to writing. When he isn't developing topical and informative content, Gary can usually be found playing his beloved guitar, or watching Aston Villa FC snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


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