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Another Dome miscalculation?

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With Millennium Dome costs still in the spotlight, we look at the original decision to change the roofing material

Those who attended the 'Greenpeace Business' conference in 1997 will remember Lord Melchett's declaration of victory for Greenpeace's campaign to change the specification for the Millennium Dome roof away from the first choice of material - PVC-coated polyester fabric.

Under intense media pressure and facing threats from activists to disrupt the construction programme, the government and the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) changed the roof specification to PTFE-coated glass fibre.

However, in a letter to the director general of the British Plastics Federation, the then minister for science, energy and industry, John Battle, declared that the switch was, 'to preserve the option of keeping the Dome for longer than had previously been envisaged'.

Given the current debate on the Dome's future, maybe this was not such a critical issue.

Battle went on to explain that 'ministers have made it clear that independent evidence, such as that from Professor Rappe, the independent adviser to the EU and the World Health Organisation, demonstrates that PVC is a safe material in use and emissions from its manufacture and disposal are controlled by the Environment Agency'.

Nevertheless, Lord Melchett maintained in his conference presentation that the government was only using the lifespan argument, based on longer lifetime guarantees for PTFE/ glass fibre, as an excuse to placate the PVC industry.

Most of the media had strongly supported Greenpeace's campaign. National newspapers carried headlines describing the proposed PVC roof as the 'the dome of doom', 'the toxic monster' and 'unrecyclable'.

However, writing in the Telegraph the week after the switch in roof material, Jonathon Porritt described the move as 'a triumph of campaigning panache over genuinely rigorous scientific process'.Perhaps the facts should be examined:

The cost of the PTFE/glass fibre roof was £14 million, compared with the agreed £6.1 million contract price of the PVC/polyester roof.The winner of the contract to supply the PVC roof, German company Koch Hightex, has subsequently gone bankrupt. However, an ongoing court battle against the NMEC for breach of contract could result in the payment of up to £2.5 million in compensation.

The internal surface of the dome needs frequent cleaning.One of the unintentionally striking features of the Dome now is the grubby state of the covering. The cost of this perpetual clean-up operation has been estimated by an NMEC spokesperson to be about £1 million. Had the specification been PVC, most of the cost would have been saved.

According to widespread media reports during August and September, the PTFE/glass fibre roof now has at least 12 rips and tears.Furthermore, the NMEC has breached the conditions of the 25-year roof guarantee by not using the fabric supplier, US company Birdair, for the repair work. This now makes the longevity argument for making the switch in material look rather foolish -particularly as PVC-coated fabrics have been widely used for high-profile projects such as the canopied stand at Lord's Cricket Ground and the Stade de France in Paris, without exhibiting any durability problems.

Prior to the Greenpeace campaign, toxics campaigner Mark Strutt explained the organisation's position. 'About 50 per cent of world production of chlorine goes into PVC, ' he said. 'We would like to see a complete phase-out of PVC and the eventual sunsetting of the chlorine industry'.Apart from the fact that the real proportion of chlorine used for PVC production is nearer to 30 per cent, the quote confirms the ultimate goal. The irony is that PTFE is made through the dehydrochlorination of HCFC 22 and the manufacturing process requires four times as much chlorine as an equivalent amount of PVC.

As a further irony, Greenpeace had made claims that the PVC/polyester roof would be unrecyclable - despite the firm offers made to the NMEC to recycle the PVC roof at the end of its life. No recycling option currently exists for the PTFE/glass fibre replacement.

So who were the real winners and losers?

Losers were the public, with at least £8 million extra expenditure required for the project, and the government which suffered through negative media coverage.

The NMEC lost a great deal of credibility, and could lose more due to alleged breaches of guarantee relating to roof repairs. Koch Hightex lost the contract and subsequently was declared bankrupt. The PVC industry had its product unfairly called into question and Friends of the Earth lost its campaign against the PTFE roof.

The only real winner in this whole sorry episode, apart from the cleaning franchise, was Greenpeace. Truly an ignominious victory!

Roger Mottram is the UK environmental affairs and communications manager for European Vinyls Corporation, Europe's largest manufacturer of PVC plastic. Tel 01928 570100

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