Over the past years, PVC has increasingly grappled with its image as a "bad" plastic. Just how bad the image of this material really is becomes painfully clear from the results of quick Google search using the relatively unbiased search terms "PVC + environment". PVC, I learn, is the "worst plastic from an environmental health perspective". Called "the Poison Plastic", it is "one of the worst environmental and health offenders, yet it's the most widely used material". I read that "PVC plastic constantly emits toxins, such as dioxin, into the air," and that it "lasts forever and is toxic to make." And that was without even having to click the search results open.
And it's perfectly true: there are definitely a number of serious issues relating to PVC, concerning the end of life, controversial plasticizers, emissions during production, the use of cadmium and lead stabilizers, to name but a few, that need to be addressed. What's heartening to note is that this is exactly what is happening. Today, PVC is probably the world's most researched plastic.
The manufacture of PVC involves the use of potentially hazardous chemicals and is very closely regulated. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, just issued strong final standards requiring facilities that produce polyvinyl chloride and copolymers (PVC) to reduce harmful air emissions, which will improve air quality and protect people's - especially children's - health in areas where facilities are located.
In Europe, a 10-year industry commitment was launched in 2000 under the name Vinyl 2010, to enhance the sustainable production and use of this material, with gratifying results. In 1999, there was no PVC recycling infrastructure in Europe, with PVC being dismissed by many as an 'unrecyclable' material. Today, the audit results show that in the past year alone 260,842 tons of unregulated post-consumer PVC waste were recycled by Vinyl 2010's network of PVC recyclers across Europe, well beyond the project's initial target of 200,000 tons, working under the Recovinyl umbrella. Recovinyl facilitates the collection, sorting, dispatching and recycling of mixed PVC post-consumer waste, mainly from the building and construction sectors, by involving and motivating accredited waste recovery companies and recyclers.
However, the main reason for the success of Vinyl 2010 was the across-the-board participation of the entire industry. "It has not been easy to bring everybody on board, there were lots of reluctant people saying it would be a failure, recycling would not work, additives would not be replaced, but we did it," said Helmuth Leitner of the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers. As a result, Europe's PVC chain became willing to invest time, and money. What's more, building on the success of Vinyl 2010, a new voluntary industry commitment has since been launched, complete with a new set of targets aimed at sustainable development.
One notable example of the industry's engagement is Solvay's successful development of a new recycling process called VinyLoop. VinyLoop, is a technique that exploits PVC's total solubility in specific solvents, which separates it from other materials and is therefore suitable for the recycling of composite PVC waste. Through selective dissolution and filtration, the VinyLoop process can eliminate contaminants, producing recycled PVC of near-virgin quality. The VinyLoop plant, inaugurated in 2002 in Ferrara, Italy, handles cable waste, consisting of PVC compound, other resins and residual copper particles, and tarpaulin waste, a composite PET textile coated with PVC compound, yielding a ready-made PVC compound that generally requires no further compounding.
Now, an LCA study commissioned by VinyLoop comparing the environmental impact of VinyLoop recycled material with conventional PVC compound has turned up intriguing results. The goal of the study was to assess the potential environmental impacts per kilo of recycled PVC against the benchmark of the European production average of a conventional plasticized PVC compound. Interestingly, the recycled PVC actually came out ahead of the virgin compound. A few key results:
The VinyLoop process produces a high-quality secondary PVC compound that can replace conventional virgin PVC compound in relevant downstream applications;
- The primary energy demand of VinyLoop R-PVC is 46% lower than the benchmark;
- The global warming potential of VinyLoop R-PVC is 39% lower than the benchmark;
- In addition to preserving raw material resources, the VinyLoop process avoids incineration of post-consumer PVC waste.
So is PVC - still one of the most widely used polymers in the world - becoming a reformed character? If it's up to the European PVC industry, the answer is yes. Initiatives such as the VinyLoop project demonstrate that PVC and sustainability innovation can go hand in hand - and that virgin quality is apparently highly overrated.
While plenty of sustainability challenges still remain to be overcome by the PVC industry in Europe and elsewhere in the world, the fact that this industry is not ducking out is very encouraging. Let's only hope this is not as good as it gets.