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PVC waste

Background - 2 June, 2003
PVC waste and recycling - solving a problem or selling a poison?

Activists block Termials Pty Ltd, major supplier of feedstock to PVC industry.

The PVC waste crisis

The world is facing a waste crisis from PVC. Short-life PVC products, disposed of within a few years, have caused serious PVC waste problems, especially when incinerated. The average life span of durable products, which make up more than half of PVC consumption, is around 34 years.

Durable PVC goods produced and sold since the 60s, when the plastic boom began, are now just starting to enter the waste stream. We are only now seeing the first stages of an impending PVC waste mountain.

There are currently over 150 million tonnes of long-life PVC materials in existence globally. Most of these are used in the construction sector, which will constitute this waste mountain in coming decades. With the current rate of production the world will have to deal with approximately 300 million tonnes of PVC starting to enter the waste stream by the year 2005. The amount of PVC waste in industrialised countries is already expected to grow faster than PVC production.

Of even more concern is the fact that the PVC industry is rapidly expanding in Latin America and Asia so that eventually a growing waste mountain will be generated in these parts of the world.

In light of the large volume of long-life PVC products due to become waste in the coming decades, and the projected increase in PVC production, it becomes apparent that an international PVC phase-out is urgently required. Only this will put a halt to a growing, dangerous and intractable waste problem.

So what do we do with this waste? Is there a solution? Since PVC, like most plastics, does not biodegrade quickly, three primary options exist: bury, incinerate or recycle.

For a thorough review of why none of these is a viable option, and an examination of the claims made for PVC recycling, see PVC Plastic: A Looming Waste Crisis.

PVC recycling

In the late 80s, PVC recycling was promoted by industry in order to make it more acceptable to the public and to prevent government action to limit PVC production and use.

As a result, the general public and decision-makers are now accepting recycling as a technical solution to the environmental problems associated with PVC. This is especially the case in countries with advanced recycling policies, like Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and the US.

In reality, Greenpeace has found that PVC recycling in the primary PVC consuming regions of the world, amounts to less then one percent of consumption. According to independent research, for 70-85 percent of PVC waste, recycling is not even an option for the mid to long term. This means hundreds of thousands of tonnes of PVC is destined to become waste in the near future creating a growing disposal problem.

Our research also shows that, in an attempt to convince the public and decision makers that PVC can be and is being recycled, the PVC industry is supplying false information. For example, in Germany, so-called 'recycled' window frames, promoted by industry as proof that old PVC windows are being recycled into new window frames, were tested by Greenpeace. None of the seven tested samples were really recycled window frames. Subsequent testing showed they only contained pre-consumer PVC waste from off cuts and they had been coloured to resemble a recycled window frame. Only two contained traces of recycled PVC from used window frames and even these were insignificant.

A tour of highly publicised PVC recycling plants revealed that hardly any PVC construction material was being processed at all. This is because it is difficult and costly to collect and there is little market for recycled products due to the cheap price of virgin PVC products.

Why is PVC plastic waste so difficult and expensive to manage?

A major problem in the recycling of PVC is its high chlorine content of raw PVC (56 percent of the polymer's weight) and the high levels of hazardous additives added to the polymer to achieve the desired material quality.

Additives may comprise up to 60 percent of a PVC product's weight. Of all plastics, PVC uses the highest proportion of additives.

As a result, PVC requires separation from other plastics and sorting before mechanical recycling. For this reason, PET bottle recyclers make sure that PVC bottles do not contaminate their mix.

PVC recycling is particularly problematic because of:

  • high separation and collection costs;
  • loss of material quality after recycling;
  • the low market price of PVC recyclate compared to virgin PVC;
  • the limited potential of recyclate in the existing PVC market.

PVC feedstock recycling is hardly feasible at present, from an economic or an environmental perspective. It is doubtful whether it will ever play a significant role in PVC waste management.

The PVC industry seems to acknowledge that PVC recycling is no solution for PVC waste. Therefore it is not surprising that industry is now lobbying for PVC incineration as a recovery option (for energy, hydrochloric acid and/or salt) in Western Europe and Japan and for land filling in the US and Australia. This forces local authorities to shoulder the burden of pollution and costs from PVC consumption.

PVC and incineration

Incineration is not a sustainable option for dealing with waste. When plastic is burned, less energy is generated from it than was used to make it. Incineration also means that the carbon contained within it is emitted as carbon dioxide (CO2), which is a greenhouse gas. Toxic substances, such as dioxins, are also emitted, and large amounts of solid wastes are produced as slag, ash, filter residues and neutralisation salt residues.

The higher the chlorine content of the materials burned, the greater the quantity of dioxins formed. In many countries, PVC is the single largest chlorine source in municipal waste. Research has shown an association between chlorine input and dioxin output in hospital and municipal garbage incinerators.

Incineration of PVC is not just a problem because of dioxin emissions. Burning PVC also produces at least 75 by-products of combustion, including carcinogens such as vinyl chloride, Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), chlorobenzene and other aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene, toluene, xylene, and naphthalene.

Toxic ingredients added to PVC to give it useful properties, such as lead, cadmium, and phthalates are also released during incineration. These are emitted to the air or in the ash that is land filled. Because huge quantities of heavy metals are added to PVC as stabilisers, PVC is the major source of lead and cadmium in the municipal waste stream. In Germany, PVC incineration releases more lead into the environment than leaded gasoline, and is considered the main source of cadmium emissions.

Incinerating PVC increases the amount of hazardous waste that needs to be land filled. The incineration of 1kg of PVC creates approximately 1-3kg of contaminated salt residues. This is due to the neutralisation of the hydrochloric acid when dry and semi-dry neutralisation processes are applied. This salt needs to be disposed of in landfills as hazardous waste, making a mockery of the claim that incineration is a form of waste reduction.

In Germany, the Council of Experts for Environmental Issues issued a special report on waste management in 1990 concluding:

"Even assuming the possibility and technical implementation of pollution free PVC incineration by means of end of pipe measures, it will remain necessary to remove the hydrochloric acid that is formed from the flue gas, to bind it as a salt and to store it....therefore the waste volume to be stored cannot be reduced by means of incineration."

PVC and landfills

PVC additives will eventually leach, posing a risk to groundwater. The bulk of petrochemical-based plastics, such as PVC, Polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE) are durable and have a long lifetime. After disposal, they do not decompose readily or quickly.

Moreover, the use of many different chemical additives in some plastics results in their leaching out of landfills to contaminate soil and groundwater. This is especially true for PVC, which has the highest content of additives, most of which are hazardous to the environment.

Considerable quantities of PVC are present in landfills, as a result of the disposal of municipal solid wastes (MSW), and construction and other wastes. Almost one million tonnes of PVC was land filled in Europe as MSW in 1994. PVC waste from other sectors, such as agriculture, the car industry, construction and distribution is not included and will add considerably to this figure.

Landfill fires become particularly toxic with PVC waste. Landfill fires are a common occurrence, with the potential to pyrolyse and combust PVC, leading to the release, either in smoke or as leachate, of a range of pollutants including heavy metal additives and dioxins.

A four-year survey of 63 landfills in Germany revealed that 13 fires occurred, requiring the attendance of the fire services. Some fires deep in the landfill may take several months to be brought under control.

Sometime fires are deliberately started at landfills, as a way of reducing waste volumes, or for recovery of scrap metals such as copper from PVC cable. Smoke from these fires contains a wide range of products of incomplete combustion, including dioxins, aromatic hydrocarbons and aldehydes.

A recent study in Germany showed that PVC is the source of virtually all dioxins formed in landfill fires. The US Environmental Protection Authority estimates that one fifth of total dioxin releases into the air in the US are the products of landfill fires.

PVC waste exports

'…blessed with a huge population willing to clean plastics by hand and archaic machines wheezing profiles and parts out by the million, the Chinese plastic recycling juggernaut has experienced phenomenal growth.'
Plastics News, March 25 1996

PVC waste is exported from the US, Europe and Australia to developing countries, often for recycling into lower quality products such as shoes and pipes. According to the Indonesian Environment Minister, up to 40 percent of the plastic waste imported into Indonesia is not recycled but disposed directly, partly as hazardous waste. Down cycled products will eventually be dumped or burned since down cycling simply delays the inevitable need to dispose of PVC plastic waste.

Country exports

In the US, exporting PVC scrap and waste seems to be a more important disposal route than recycling. The amount of PVC scrap and waste exported in the first half of 1996 was greater than all the post consumer PVC recycled in the whole of 1995.

In 1996, at least 4,000 tonnes of pre-consumer PVC waste was exported from the Netherlands to the Philippines for recycling into low quality products. However, the actual amount of PVC waste exported for down cycling in Asia is likely to be higher.

Recycling of post consumer and imported plastic waste is a growing, income-generating industry in developing countries. However, the dangers of working with mixed plastics contaminated with unknown substances may not be recognised. These include fumes, dust and other emissions from the reprocessing equipment and the need for protective clothing may be ignored.