Vinyl products are everywhere — from the pipes that deliver drinking water to the discs spinning on turntables to floors, windows, siding, roofing membranes, toys and hospital supplies.
However, when it comes to recycling, the products aren't showing up in large volumes.
The Vinyl Institute, a Washington-based trade group representing PVC resin producers, is trying to change that with a grant program called Viability.
For the first time, VI is offering grants — $3 million over the next three years — to improve the rate of recycling post-consumer PVC across the U.S.
Material recovery facilities, construction and demolition waste facilities, recyclers, colleges and other trade groups are eligible for the grants in amounts up to $500,000.
Vinyl is a quality material that can be recycled as many as eight times without losing its durability and resilience, according to VI President and CEO Ned Monroe.
"I think there's a ready market for recycled vinyl and we hope this greases the gears to spur interest in innovation to increase the volume of post-consumer PVC," Monroe said in a Microsoft Teams interview.
In 2019, 1.1 billion pounds of vinyl material were recycled in the U.S. and Canada, according to the latest VI figures. About 87 percent of the total was post-industrial vinyl, usually in the form of production scrap generated by switching lines and colors, and 13 percent was post-consumer vinyl.
Monroe said the latter figure is low because the post-consumer vinyl category includes mostly building products with long service lives, in addition to technical, logistical and investment hurdles.
"Most vinyl is staying in use for decades before it is recycled," Monroe said. "Siding, for example, is in use for 40 years, flooring for 20-30 years and decking for 20-30 years."
Still, with the grant program, VI officials want to increase post-consumer PVC recycling from the 142 million pounds recycled in 2019 to 160 million pounds by 2025.
The biggest opportunities appear to be roofing, siding, medical tubing and records, Monroe said, adding the vinyl industry at large has been involved with recycling and pilot programs since the 1990s and there are more than 100 vinyl recyclers in the U.S.
Now the resin producers are making grants available to do more. The funds may be used for equipment purchases, process investments, research and development, educational programs and program management that supports sustainable recycling of vinyl products.
"We're casting a very wide net to encourage anybody who has innovative ideas to apply," Monroe said. "We're also hoping to hear from people who are currently recycling and would like to increase the volume but are running into some roadblocks with collection, transportation and logistical issues. We might be able to help them."
Currently, the big hurdles to post-consumer PVC recycling are economics and logistics.
"There needs to be a steady supply stream and a matching demand for economic viability," Monroe said.
And then there are the logistical issues to get vinyl products — like building materials — to recyclers.
"How do you get a large enough load that can be transported economically?" Monroe asked, adding a consolidated drop-off point could bring down the cost per mile to recycle and make it more economical.
Chicago-based Azek Co. Inc. is figuring it out. Azek will collect PVC scrap from construction and demolition (C&D) waste for its outdoor building products through a partnership with Bothell, Wash.-based DTG Recycle Inc.
DTG, the largest C&D waste recycler in the Pacific Northwest, will collect PVC siding, windows, fencing and pipe from the region and send it to Azek's subsidiary, Return Polymers in Ashland, Ohio. Return Polymers then will turn the scrap into blends of PVC material that become the recycled content of TimberTech-brand decking and Azek- and Versatex-brand trim.
To fund more efforts, VI received money from four members: Formosa, Oxy, Shintech and Westlake. The PVC resin manufacturers are contributing $1 million a year. A seven-member VI grant committee will choose grant recipients.
The first round of grant applications is due on March 1. VI will announce the awards within 60 days of the deadline.
"It is our responsibility to identify pathways to grow PVC recycling," Monroe said. "Viability is a deliberate and compelling step in that direction. We are eager to identify worthy vinyl recycling programs."