PVC has received its fair share of controversy. The chemicals added to it to make it supple have drawn a huge amount of attention from environmentalists as being carcinogens and endocrine disrupters and the sheer volume of plastics filling our landfill sites has long been a cause for concern.
The PVC industry meanwhile has robustly defended their product, launching counter-claims and their own campaign to ‘clean up’ the reputation of plastic.
So can PVC ever earn green credentials?
What is PVC?
Polyvinyl Chloride or PVC, as it’s commonly known, is a kind of plastic made from sodium chloride and oil or natural gas. It was first made in the 1950’s and has grown to be the second most utilised kind of plastic today.
Being a thermoplastic material, PVC becomes flexible when heated and therefore moulded easily, and sets into shape when cold. This property alone makes it an incredibly versatile and useful product but it’s also durable, can be made pliable with plasticisers, and is inexpensive to produce.
PVC, then, is used for a wide range of products including window frames, chairs, flooring, tubing, clothing, and some types of packaging.
PVC to Landfill
The main way of disposing of PVC until recently has been to either incinerate it or send it to landfill, with landfill being by far the most common option. However PVC does not readily degrade (estimates are that it will stay in the ground for 100 years before beginning to decompose) and it also contains harmful chemicals such as phthalates which could leach out and contaminate surrounding ground water.
However with landfill sites running short of space and recognition that we can’t simply keep burying our waste, disincentives, such as higher landfill taxes for dumping PVC, are now in place to try to prevent it being disposed of in this way.
Can PVC be Recycled?
It is perfectly possible to recycle PVC and it can be done so very efficiently by a heating and cooling process. The problems mostly lie, however, in the complexity of the procedure and also the fact that many PVC articles are combined or ‘contaminated’ with other materials and types of plastic, making it difficult (expensive) to separate them out.
Although there are variations in the techniques used, there are two main methods of recycling PVC: 1) Mechanical recycling, where the plastic is ground up into small pieces which are then reprocessed and 2) ‘Feedstock’ recycling where it’s split into its constituent parts which are then re-used.
What is the Future of PVC Products?
While PVC has been the bad boy of plastic in the past, the PVC industry seems very committed to develop a sustainable future for the product and in 2005 launched ‘Recovinyl’, a scheme dedicated to recovering and recycling PVC as well as working towards operating a carbon neutral industry.
Funded by the PVC industry, Recovinyl has so far been extremely successful and this year is set to exceed its self-imposed target for 2008, by sending 50,000 tonnes of PVC for recycling – nearly a 7,000 ton increase on the previous year – which was thought in itself to have saved 71,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions.
What You Can Do
The environmental mantra which each of us need to adopt is ‘Reduce, Re-use, Recycle’ – and in that order.
So the first and most meaningful action you can take is to reduce your consumption of new plastic and PVC in any way you can. Lobby your supermarket to reduce its packaging, choose household items made from natural, sustainable and fair trade sources, and do without things you really don’t need.
If you do have PVC products in the home, then re-use them as many times as possible. Re-fill drinks bottles, don’t replace plastic items if you don’t need to, or donate to charitable causes who can make use of them again.
If you then have PVC objects which you can’t re-use or pass on to someone who can, send it for recycling. PVC window frames can be recycled as can many other products but if they get put in general waste, they are likely to end up in landfill.