The European Parliament voted April 3 for much stricter standards on the use of PVC, a decision that could push European regulators toward more product phaseouts, as well as restrictions on PVC waste disposal.
The 292-180 vote took the European vinyl industry by surprise because some of its traditional support among industry-friendly politicians dropped off, said Martyn Griffiths, spokesman for the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers in Brussels, Belgium.
The Parliament vote is advisory, but observers said it sends a powerful signal. Griffiths said he hoped the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU government, would draft legislation that does not go much beyond voluntary action the industry already has taken to address concerns.
But Greenpeace said the Parliament was clearly pushing the commission to adopt tougher rules.
"The response from the Parliament is very clear — they back the initiation of hard legislation," said Greenpeace spokesman Lorenzo Consoli. "They want the phaseout of cadmium and lead, and they clearly favor substitution of PVC, starting with the egregious uses."
The next step is for the European Commission to draft a proposal, which is expected by midsummer. The commission put out a green paper on PVC last year and has been holding hearings and getting comments from industry, environmentalists and, perhaps most importantly, the Parliament.
ECVM said the Parliament's position is significantly different from last year's commission green paper: "The overall assessment ... would suggest that they [Parliament members] are motivated by political considerations," said Jean-Pierre de Greve, executive director of ECVM.
Nonetheless, the Parliament's detailed proposal did contain elements that both industry and environmentalists were able to endorse.
The vinyl industry is very concerned about Parliament's proposal to restrict PVC use in buildings with a high fire risk, Griffiths said. The industry is also concerned about Parliament's plan to separate PVC waste from other wastes to keep it from being incinerated and landfilled.
Parliament does call for a PVC substitution policy, but Griffiths noted it includes specific calls for life-cycle analysis. And while it raises issues about the health effects of phthalates and said immediate action should be taken to protect exposed groups, it also talks about the need to wait for risk assessments for the plasticizers.
For other additives like lead and cadmium, it calls for phaseouts and bans.
The Parliament also made a point of calling for more PVC recycling, noting that the material has a 3 percent post-consumer recycling rate. The first step should be to recycle bulk products like pipe, window frames and other building products, according to the resolution.
"What I think is, the European Parliament has really sent out a strong signal to the commission," said Maureen Penjueli, a Greenpeace toxics campaigner. "What the Parliament vote literally means is they want the commission to translate their demands, so hopefully that would mean stronger action than what has been taken."
While ECVM said discussions will continue with the commission, Griffiths acknowledged that PVC will suffer in the marketplace.
"Any debate into the safety and use of a product is bound to affect the market share," he said. "There will be some damage done to the market. ... It is pushing people in the direction where they will start to think about their purchasing policy."
In a related development, ECVM on March 30 published its first progress report on its voluntary program. It said the industry has started nine new waste management projects, including pan-European plans to recycle pipe, flooring and post-consumer windows.
ECVM also said it is phasing out cadmium, doing research into lead phaseouts, working on feedstock recycling, talking with unions about better product stewardship and funding research.
The Parliament recognized that program but also called for making the commitments binding and enacting penalties if they are not met. Griffiths said ECVM is willing to talk about that.