PVC Recycling Challenged by Restrictions, Bans on Legacy Additives

Launched in 2011, VinylPlus is the renewed 10-year voluntary commitment to sustainable development by the European PVC industry.  The volume of recycled PVC registered further growth in 2017, reaching 639,648 tonnes (the 2020 target is 800,000 tonnes).  The quantity of PVC available for recycling in 2017 in Europe was estimated at 2.5 million tonnes, meaning around 25% is currently recycled.

More than 300,000 tonnes of the PVC recycled in Europe in 2017 was window profiles and related products. Wire & cable, and pipes and fittings also accounted for a fair proportion. And even with flexible PVC, many of the applications are durable, including roofing and waterproofing membranes, flooring, and coated fabrics.

The durable nature of the application slate for PVC resin stands it in contrast with polyethylene resin, and to a certain polypropylene resin, for which packaging and other disposable application account for a much higher proportion. This durable nature of the majority of PVC products has implications for its recycling in that many end-of-life products may have been in the field for decades, and thus contain additives such as plasticizers and heat stabilizers whose use may now either be banned or restricted.

This complication was highlighted recently with the announcement that VinyLoop Ferrara SpA would close its recycling plant in Ferrara, Italy and cease the production of VinyLoop R-PVC. The plant is a joint venture between Inovyn ChlorVinyls and Texyloop. The collapse in demand for the special type of recycled PVC produced at the VinyLoop plant, driven by increasing product regulation, had severely impacted the business.

VinyLoop General Manager Francesco Tarantino commented: “Despite every effort in sustaining the loss-making business over the last 15 years, demand for VinyLoop R-PVC has recently collapsed and we have therefore concluded that ongoing operation of the VinyLoop business is no longer sustainable. This has been driven primarily by tighter regulations relating to R-PVC that contains di-ethyl hexyl phthalate plasticizer (DEHP).”

The EU also set an upper limit for cadmium in plastics of 100 ppm, with an exception of 1000 ppm allowed for specified rigid PVC construction products for cadmium originating from recyclates. These limits were scheduled to be reviewed by 31 December 2017. Cadmium-based heat stabilizers were commonly used in PVC in the past.

Another legacy heat stabilizer material, lead, is also in the review process. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) initially proposed a threshold of 0.1% lead content for articles not containing recycled PVC. For some rigid building and construction articles produced from recycled PVC, there would be a 15-year period where a higher limit of lead content permissible in articles using PVC recyclates would apply. The industry voluntarily banned the use of lead stabilizers in PVC at the end of 2015 and the recycling stream is already seeing lower levels of lead on average.

Townsend’s take:   PVC is an easy-to-process, durable resin, with additives playing a key role in its market success. Plasticizers, heat stabilizers, lubricants and impact modifiers combine to deliver a cost-effective solution in durable applications such as pipes and window profiles. Now, many of these additives are proving a detriment to its recyclability due to EU regulation. The industry there has been proactive in switching to alternative plasticizers and heat stabilizers so in theory, PVC’s recyclability will be enhanced once these legacy additives are no longer in the recyclate stream. Elsewhere in the world, however, the use of lead and other additives that are restricted in the EU remains common. The same issues confronted by Europe could be faced by many Asian countries in the future once recycling systems are established and restrictions are implemented.
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