Slow progress on voluntary PVC recycling targets

The PVC industry is "on track" to meet interim recycling targets for "collectable, available" PVC waste set under its voluntary environmental programme, Vinyl 2010 - but remains way off its target to recycle an extra 200,000 tonnes of PVC by 2010. Meanwhile, the final draft of the European Commission's life-cycle analysis of PVC suggests that measures to encourage substitution of the polymer are unlikely to be introduced.

The European PVC industry has come under severe pressure in recent years to address its impacts, including the use of hazardous additives and the low level of recycling (ENDS Report 306, pp 40-41 ).

The challenge is enormous. Of the four million tonnes of PVC waste generated in the EU last year, a mere 2-3% was recycled. Waste arisings are expected to increase by 50-80% over the next 20 years.

In 2000, the industry launched its 10-year environmental initiative, Vinyl 2010, in an attempt to ward off legislation. Key targets include the recycling of 25% of the "collectable, available" waste window frames, pipes, fittings and roofing membranes by 2003 and 50% by 2005. Another target is to recycle 25% of flooring by 2006.

It also includes targets to phase out sales of lead stabilisers by 2015, with a 15% reduction by 2005 and 50% by 2010.

According to its latest progress report, issued in April, the programme's recycling targets for 2003 were all achieved, leaving those for 2005 "within reach".1 However, this achievement looks somewhat less impressive when the quantities of PVC recycled are compared with total arisings, rather than those deemed by the PVC industry to be "collectable and available".

With PVC pipes and fittings, for example, just 30% are judged to be "available" because the rest are not excavated after use. Of those that are excavated, only 50% are "collectable" because of "economic or technical reasons", such as "remoteness from an existing collection network".

Using these definitions, the 6,150 tonnes of pipes and fittings recycled in 2003 equates to a recycling rate of 30%. But the rate drops to less than 5% based on actual arisings.

Similarly, the amount of window frames recycled - almost 5,000 tonnes - was 35% of the collectable, available waste but only 16% of the total waste stream. And while the 544 tonnes of PVC roofing material that was recycled hit the 25% target for collectable, available material bang on, it represents just 6% of all PVC roofing waste.

In total, the recycling targets delivered the recycling of some 12,000 tonnes of PVC - some way off the industry's commitment to recycle an extra 200,000 tonnes across Europe by 2010.

Critics might argue that Vinyl 2010 should not be relying on existing schemes, and that PVC manufacturers should conduct research into ways of overcoming economic and technical barriers, and fund new collection and reprocessing projects.

But Vinyl 2010 does not extend as far as voluntary producer responsibility. "The PVC industry is prepared to recycle all the waste left at the factory gates, but the responsibility for collection is shared with the consumer," said Jean-Pierre de Grève, executive director of the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers.

In the UK, an industry consortium led by Bradford University has been examining how - and whether - post-consumer PVC products should be recycled (ENDS Report 337, p 32 ). Funded by the Government's Waste and Resources Action Programme, the project is due to report shortly. Bradford University estimates that some 14,000 tonnes of PVC window profiles become waste each year, with arisings set to increase significantly.

In addition, the British Plastics Federation and the Building Research Establishment have been looking at the practicalities of window profile recycling in two major housing refurbishment projects. The BPF hopes to increase the amount of post-consumer profile waste recycled from 1,000 tonnes in 2003 to 2,500 tonnes in 2005.

Vinyl 2010's target to reduce sales of lead stabilisers by 15% by 2005 appears to be in jeopardy, with sales dropping just 5.3% between 2000-2003. Mr de Grève said the slow rate of progress was due to the higher price of calcium-zinc stabilisers.

In an unwelcome move for producers of bisphenol A, the report publicises for the first time the fact that PVC manufacturers stopped using the substance in 2002 following the initial conclusions of an EU risk assessment of the chemical. The risk assessment has yet to be completed.

The report includes this information even though it is not part of the Vinyl 2010 programme. Prior to 2002, bisphenol A was used as an inhibitor in the polymerisation stage of PVC production, but has been replaced by phenolic antioxidants.

Meanwhile, the final draft of a life-cycle assessment for the Commission concludes that "it is more effective to further optimise the life cycle of PVC products...rather than give a general preference to certain materials."

A life-cycle assessment study issued by the UK Government three years ago came to similar conclusions, but its failure to consider the toxicity of additives and by-products was criticised by environmental groups (ENDS Report 318, pp 28-29 ). Greenpeace said the Commission's draft study contains important omissions, such as failure to note that soft PVC containing phthalates is banned in certain toys (ENDS Report 299, pp 47-48 ).

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