BRUSSELS, BELGIUM (Nov. 17, 10:30 a.m. EST) — Europe's vinyl resin suppliers are looking across a 440 million-pound gap in PVC recycling numbers, and they have less than seven full years to bridge it.
Making that self-imposed target would help the industry prove to environmental naysayers that even PVC can meet tough “green” initiatives, but failure could open it up to even more stringent oversight that could limit future sales.
“We have to continue delivering on the voluntary commitment,” said spokesman Martyn Griffiths of the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers and its Vinyl 2010 initiative. “We have to deliver by 2010 to show that we are credible and that voluntary commitment works. That is extremely important.”
The makers have undertaken a multi-pronged approach that includes increased emphasis on mechanical recycling of pipe and window frames, investment in the Solvay SA-developed Vinyloop process for recycling PVC from mixed plastics in cables, flooring and roofing systems, and feedstock recycling.
The groups' goal of recycling 440 million pounds of PVC in Europe is well in excess of the less than 110 million pounds recycled last year — and is in addition to the tons of material already covered by existing packaging and automotive recycling moves.
“We have a lot to do in terms of being seen as a high-profile, dynamic organization by many people, but we're getting there,” Griffiths said. “The more we deliver the results, the more we'll show that voluntary action is the way to go forward.”
Western Europe, in general, has had a stronger emphasis on environmental initiatives than North America for years.
Part of that reflects a more compact landscape. Factories sit close by residential neighborhoods. Farms nestle near major metropolitan regions and historic landmarks dot the landscape.
“It was as if one day they said, 'OK, we've got enough wealth, what's next?' ” said Helmuth Leitner, international business manager of plastics environmental matters for So-l-vay and its Solvin SA PVC unit. “Here, it was a question of quality of life.
“It's not that the U.S. does not have that, but there you may have heavily industrialized areas, but you have the big spaces where you can still get away from it.”
The limited elbow room also provides an additional economic incentive for recycling. Landfill fees may be 10 times the cost per ton compared with North American landfill costs, Leitner noted.
“That gives you a different framework to work from,” he said.
Many northern European countries, including Germany and Denmark, rely on incineration. But stabilizers and plastisizers in PVC complicate that strategy, and add fuel to environmental activists' general distrust of PVC, dating back decades to early chlorine issues.
Continuing debate from consumer groups about phthalates has led to attacks on PVC in everything from toys to medical equipment and water pipe in Europe and North America alike — regardless of whether there is scientific backing for those claims.
“I'm responsible for all of Solvay's plastics, but the PVC branch takes three-quarters of my time,” Leitner said during a Sept. 18 interview at the firm's downtown Brussels headquarters.
Attention-grabbing stunts and negative headlines make PVC one of the few resin blends consumers know by name.
“If people hear something negative about plastic, they automatically assume it's PVC,” Griffiths said. “But what's strange is that in Europe, at least, people don't recognize that vinyl is PVC. There is a huge market for vinyl flooring, but they have no idea it's PVC.”
PVC is far from the only target in the plastics industry, though.
In 2002, Ireland launched a 0.15 euro tax on retail plastic bags in a move aimed at curbing wind-blown litter problems.
The tax reduced bag consumption by 95 percent — or 1 billion bags — and prompted shutdowns and layoffs at bag producers.
“The thinking in the industry used to be that we were responsible for what happened to the material up to the gate of our plant,” Leitner said. “Responsible care did not incorporate the whole chain. We have a different view now.”
The seriousness of the environmental issue hit PVC full force in 1997, when the European Union issued a draft report on automotive recycling initiatives specifically calling for a halt on PVC.
Automakers and the plastics industry jointly managed to kill that proposal, but they realized that if vinyl producers did not take some strong steps toward improving the material's environmental image, more efforts would follow.
At the same time, a major PVC customer also was debating whether to continue with the material.
Ferrari Group — a French company that produces architectural and advertising tarpaulins — had debated whether to continue using vinyl in its plastics and textile blend. It preferred PVC, but the composite blend made it impossible to recycle with straight vinyl blends. The company was considering a switch to polyethylene, Leitner said.
So with attacks and possible cutbacks continuing, the company launched specific research into finding an economically viable way to recycle composite PVC blends.
“The units for recycling will not fall from the sky. We have to do something,” he said.
Necessity spawns invention
Within a year, Solvay had a patent for the process that has become Vinyloop, geared at blends not conducive to the less-expensive, straight-ahead mechanical processing used for window frames and pipe.
Vinyloop separates PVC from its additives using a combination of chemical solvents and centrifugation. The additives and the solvent itself also can be recycled.
To make it truly a viable option, though, Solvay needed to partner with ECVM to share costs and find an existing waste collection unit, where raw materials for recycling were readily available.
“You need to think about what can be done economically, because we are still an industry here,” Leitner said. “We are not here only to make social progress. We also have to make money for our shareholders, or we would not be a very sustainable business.
“A sustainable model is put together with three pillars — the environment, but also economics and social costs.”
The vinyl manufacturers group signed on to help pick up the cost of building a pilot plant. The groups coordinated efforts with the electrical cable recycling industry. The cables already were collected for the value of the copper wire, but the composite PVC that contained the copper was thrown out.
“We agreed it was justified to help,” said Arjen Sevenster, manager of technical and environmental affairs for ECVM. “You need to make it a very profitable business, which we hope will happen, but it is a new technology, and new technologies take time. The rest of the industry has to help.”
Vinyloop Ferrara SpA opened in Ferrara, Italy, in 2002, capable of separating out the PVC for recycling from 22 million pounds of cables annually.
A second Vinyloop operation is set to launch in 2004 in Bernburg, Germany, able to separate the PVC from 79 million pounds of vinyl floors, roof systems and cables. Automaker Volkswagen AG is considering sending plastics recovered from auto shredder residue to the site as well.
Texyloop, a similar process aimed specifically at tarpaulin maker Ferrari's needs, is targeted to open soon in Tavaux, France. Other plants are in the planning stage in France and Spain.
Solvay's system is carrying a heavy load of the Vinyl 2010 guideline. The industry is relying on Vinyloop and the similar Texyloop to handle more than half of the total target. Solvay also has a cooperative agreement studying the potential for Vinyloop in Japan — another country with high landfill costs and tight spaces.
“Without any financial support from the rest of the industry, we couldn't convince our board to jump in,” Leitner said. “To make the voluntary numbers happen without any financial investment would be a dream, but we shouldn't dream, we should be realistic.”
It is far from alone, though, in working to boost PVC's image and long-term survival.
The additives industry has signed on to reduce the use of lead stabilizers by 15 percent by 2005, 50 percent by 2010 and fully replace them by 2015.
Plasticizer producers agreed to continue to research phthalates and evaluate materials.
ECVM also is pushing for wider collection of window frames and pipe for mechanical recycling. Pipe makers in the Netherlands are backing collections, while the industry as a whole is looking at ways to work with local governments to have specific bins for vinyl products at municipal recycling collection sites.
“Maybe at the beginning, we underestimated the difficulty of collecting,” Sevenster said. “It may be in the end easier to find the recycling technologies and to invest in the recycling plants than to collect the waste.
“It's not very exciting, but it has to be done.”
And it has to be visible. Activists are not remaining on the sidelines while the vinyl industry revs up its voluntary action. The newest attack is coming in the form of proposals for “eco labeling,” which would recognize products that can meet specific environmental points that would exclude PVC.
On its own as a consumer guideline, the labeling prospect is not a concern, Sevenster said, but there is talk of linking the label to public procurement — which represents 15 percent of the sales in the EU's gross domestic product.
“We're going to have a lot of issues in the future to deal with,” Griffiths said. “That's why we have to be effective and show that Vinyl 2010 is really showing that PVC is a recyclable material, that it has a future that can be dealt with.”