Europeans are discussing the future of PVC again, and North American processors should keep a close eye on the debate.
PVC seems to be in the news so frequently that processors might grow weary of all the discussion and complaisance about the potential ramifications. After all, if you had taken seriously all the buzz about dioxin, you might have thought that PVC had been banned in Europe a decade ago.
But while PVC has lost some significant battles, it has endured, thanks to tenacious efforts by European manufacturers.
The latest effort specifically targets problems associated with an expected explosion in the volume of discarded PVC products. As the first generation of durable PVC goods like pipe, siding and windows nears the end of its useful life, the European Commission is looking at how governments will deal with impending disposal issues.
Specifically, EC wants to know how to handle the lead, cadmium and phthalate additives in discarded PVC, and whether it can, either through legislation or voluntary means, boost PVC's abysmal recycling record.
Legislators are smart to prepare for potential problems — after all, EC officials expect PVC waste to increase 80 percent by 2020, and they point out that only 3 percent of PVC is recycled now.
Europe's PVC industry has responded by highlighting member companies' voluntary efforts to date, and pledging to continue (and perhaps accelerate) those projects. The Europeans also argue that any criticism of PVC should be balanced by considering the life-cycle benefits of the material vs. competing products. After all, aluminum siding may be easier to recycle, and concrete pipe benign in landfills, but PVC has other significant advantages, such as the energy savings during its manufacturing process.
Don't judge PVC solely on its solid waste record, industry has argued. That's a logical position. But the PVC industry knows from experience that logic doesn't always win debates. Industry is particularly vulnerable when opponents start making claims about health and safety — especially when children may be at risk, as in the recent troubles with baby teethers. Greenpeace and its allies are winning that battle and are sure to try and use that strategy again.
The European dialogue on PVC's solid waste record is sure to be repeated in North America. Municipalities here also face a growing influx of discarded durable vinyl construction products. They'll have the same questions about the safety of landfilling or incinerating those items. They'll wonder why all that apparently valuable material isn't being recycled.
Based on cultural differences between North America and Europe, it's unlikely that industry here will be under the same degree of pressure to take responsibility for those concerns. But processors and suppliers must monitor the European debate and take appropriate steps now to deal with these important issues, before they become problems.