Department of the Environment

About us | Contact us | Publications

Settlements Header ImageSettlements Header ImageSettlements Header Image

Publications archive - Waste and recycling

Disclaimer

Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

End-of-life Environmental Issues with PVC in Australia

Prepared by Dr. John Scheirs,
ExcelPlas Polymer Technology (EPT) for
Environment Australia, June 2003

7. Recommendations and Suggestions for Further Work


General

Waste management of PVC should ideally involve an integrated approach based on mechanical recycling, solvent-based recycling (not available in Australia at present), thermal processes and where the waste is not suitable for the above options, landfilling and/or in situ disposal. For example products such as PVC cable insulation currently enjoy appreciable levels of mechanical recycling into sustainable end markets (e.g. industrial and domestic hose). In contrast, PVC-coated fabrics and textile-reinforced PVC sheet are one of the most challenging waste streams to mechanically recycle since the fibre reinforcement is often adhesively bonded to the PVC. Such applications lend themselves well to solvent-based recycling technologies such as the VinyloopTM process. On the other hand, many medical-grade PVC products are required to be disposed of in high temperature processes (or by employing other special technologies). At present in Australia, landfilling is the inevitable mode of disposal for most PVC post consumer packaging films, blister packs and containers. In addition quantities of buried PVC products (e.g. pipe, cable) remain in situ after their service life. The proportion of end-of-life PVC in Australian MSW is unknown. For Europe it is estimated to be between 0.7-1%.

It is recommended that waste audits and computer modelling be conducted to acquire baseline data for quantification of PVC in various waste management regimes.

Additives

The lead concentration in certain PVC products (e.g. pipes, cables) is about 0.1-1.8 wt%. The Australian PVC industry is reviewing the use of lead stabilizers and currently assessing the feasibility of phasing out of lead stabilisers in many applications where there are perceived environmental and health issues. Given that the end-of-life PVC being recovered today may have been made some 15 to 20 years ago, the ensuing PVC recyclate would still contain lead- and cadmium-based additives, and will do so for some time to come. Thus at present it will not be prudent to regulate or phase-out lead-stabilized or cadmium-stabilized PVC recyclate as this may adversely affect the PVC recycling industry.

It is recommended that restraints be established to ensure that PVC recyclates are used in 'controlled loops' (e.g. pipe to pipe/hose), to reduce environmental dispersion of additives.

Landfilling

On the basis of the available research and evidence, landfilling of end-of-life PVC appears to be environmentally acceptable when recycling and thermal treatment processes are not feasible, but relative volumes of PVC and other polymers going to landfill are unknown. In addition there is a paucity of reliable data in relation to the effect of particle size and surface area of PVC waste on release of additives in landfill environments and the leaching potential of components automotive flock in landfills.

It is recommended that studies be conducted on the product types and quantities by type of PVC and other commodity polymer waste going to landfill. It is also recommended that the effect of particle size and surface area on the release of heavy metal stabilizers and plasticizers from ground-up, pulverized or thin film PVC waste (e.g. calandered sheet products) in landfills be further investigated

Further it is recommended that further work be done to quantify and characterise the leaching potential of automotive flock in landfills (e.g. studies under acidic landfill conditions). It is recommended that research be undertaken to establish more environmentally appropriate alternatives to landfilling of auto flock (e.g. composite technology for large part mouldings).

Thermal Processes

Appropriately managed waste to energy processes can be demonstrated to generally to be more resource efficient and environmentally appropriate than landfill.

It is recommended that waste to energy processes be encouraged as legitimate for energy recovery from waste plastics including PVC when recycling or reuse is not viable.

The chlorine limitation of most incinerators and gasifiers may necessitate a dehydrochlorination step. This then allows the carbonaceous residue from PVC waste to be treated as any other organic fraction.

It is recommended that all new waste-to-energy processes for waste plastics and MSW be subject to PVC dosing trials (eg. feedstock with 5% PVC) to ensure their dioxin control and flue gas neutralization systems perform adequately.

Waste-to-energy systems are typically reliant on complex air pollution control systems to reduce emissions to the environment.

It is recommended that comprehensive programs be set up to ensure that waste to energy systems are functioning efficiently, as originally designed, and that redundancy is built-in as a duty/stand-by system.

While this report demonstrates that PVC does not necessarily have a significant impact on dioxin production in MSW incinerators and waste to energy plants, the inevitable presence of PVC in the waste stream will increase the proportion af chlorine available for dioxin generation.

It is recommended that the installation of wet and dry scrubbers as well as activated carbon injection equipment for effective dioxin removal be mandatory for planned municipal solid waste incinerators and waste to energy plants in Australia.

Dioxin emissions from medical incinerators burning PVC-bearing clinical waste are an area of potential concern.

Comprehensive monitoring of medical waste incinerators is recommended to better understand dioxin emission levels and associated risks.

Little data exists on the level of PVC in clinical waste in Australia.

It is recommended that audits be conducted to understand the level of PVC in clinical waste (levels of up to 60% PVC in hospital medical waste have been estimated by medical packaging manufacturers).

The potential for recovery of PVC from medical waste has not been quantified.

It is recommended that a trial be conducted to recover and recycle select medical-grade PVC products from hospitals (eg. IV saline bags, etoposide solution bags, drip lines and other 'non-contaminated' medical products).

There is a range of technologies available for potential recycling of PVC in medical waste.

It is recommended that alternative technologies to the incineration of clinical waste be evaluated.

Uncontrolled low temperature burning of PVC products has been demonstrated to generate significant volumes of air pollutants.

It is recommended that open burning and low-temperature burning of PVC and other plastics continue to be discouraged as this is a known source of environmental pollutants such as dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Recommendations by Market Sector

General Data

There is a lack of reliable data on the level of PVC waste in the MSW stream, the level of PVC in the building and demolition waste stream and the level of PVC left in situ in applications such as pipe and cabling.

It is recommended that work be undertaken in Australia (modelled on the European Prognos study) to analyze the amounts of PVC waste versus the fraction available for mechanical recycling, taking into consideration the consumed amounts and the product lifetimes.

PVC Containers

PVC does have a negative impact on the recycling of other plastics - specifically PET. This impact could be dealt with through the use of sophisticated sorting equipment for larger companies, but for smaller operators this continues to be a problem. Currently most PVC containers remain in the mixed bottle stream which is exported to Asia or landfilled.

It is recommended that positive sorting systems (ie. where PVC is selected as the material of choice, such as by utilizing 'black lights') are installed at material recovery facilities to increase the amount of post-consumer PVC bottles that are recovered for domestic recycling.

Sophisticated sorting processes are now available which can positively sort PVC from either a mixed plastics stream or even a mixed waste stream. PVC is easily identified by its characteristic chemical signature - a legacy of its high chlorine content. Such technologies include x-ray fluorescence, near infra-red spectroscopy and triboelectric charging.

It is recommended that the transfer of these technologies to domestic recycling operations be evaluated.

PVC Thermoforming Sheet

There is high demand for clear, rigid PVC (e.g. thermoforming sheet) however the plastics industry does not conduct adequate source separation at present.

It is recommended that the current cross contamination issues with post-industrial PVC scrap be properly addressed through industry education programs.

PVC Pipe and Conduit

In the salvage of construction and demolition waste, PVC is the next visible and recoverable component following the more voluminous bricks, timber, tiles and concrete. There is a shortage of good quality PVC recyclate available for reuse in secondary markets. The building and demolition industry accounts for approximately 80% of the PVC market. Most waste PVC in this industry is either left in situ, buried on site or sent to landfill with other building and demolition waste.

It is recommended that reclamation of PVC (pipe, conduit and cable) from construction and demolition waste be further developed.

The installers of new long-life PVC products (such as pipes, siding, flooring etc.) are well placed to take back and collect the end-of-life PVC for resale to recyclers. This type of system is now well established in Europe for vinyl flooring, pipe and conduit. The advantage of such initiatives is that it enables the collection of a readily identifiable single stream of PVC before it becomes too commingled with other building and demolition waste.

It is recommended that similar initiatives be set up in Australia in order to increase the amount of end-of-life PVC that is being recovered.

There exists a number of companies that can use PVC recyclate if it were more available.

It is recommended that companies and organizations that are well placed to support a voluntary collection of waste PVC construction products be encouraged to become involved in PVC recycling schemes and that programs such as the Vinyl Council pilot project to collect and recycle building-site PVC construction waste like pipe off-cuts be encouraged and monitored.

Pipe manufacturers could offer a take-back guarantee for all plastic pipes (PVC, PE and PP) similar to that implemented by the PVC industry in Europe. Sorting of such mixed piping is made easier by the fact that most plastic pipe and conduit is already labelled by polymer type during manufacture.

It is recommended that opportunities for improved resource utilization of end of life PVC products be investigated.

PVC Cables

Some PVC cable strippings are still being landfilled because they contain more than 5% residual copper content. Reducing this level of contamination would mean greater volumes of purified PVC for recycling and less PVC residues on the copper for smelting.

It is recommended that awareness be increased amongst copper recyclers that the PVC insulation represents a valuable product that can be effectively reprocessed in its own right. In addition it is recommended that electrostatic separation technologies be employed to achieve better separation of PVC insulation from copper cables.

Closed-loop or controlled loop recycling (e.g. cable to hose) is preferable in order to prevent dissemination of heavy metal stabilizers and other hazardous additives into the environment from products such as PVC cable.

It is therefore recommended that closed-loop recycling schemes be favoured since they keep the heavy metal stabilizer in the same product area and also displace virgin polymer, which presents resource savings. Suitable controlled-loop recycling systems could be recommended for major product segments.

PVC Compounds

The wide variety of formulations and mixtures of PVC compounds can make the recycling of mixed PVC streams difficult. For instance, tin stabilized and lead stabilized PVC is incompatible because of black staining reactions.

It is recommended that proper source separation be stressed to overcome such incompatibility issues.

PVC Sheet

Filled and coloured PVC presently have very low recycling rates. Grey industrial grade sheet, textile-reinforced (scrim) PVC and foam-backed PVC are not being recycled at present, despite significant post-industrial volumes. For instance there is a 15% scrap rate from the manufacture of PVC automotive door panels.

It is recommended that the feasibility of mechanical recycling for such applications be explored further.

Solvent-based recycling is a highly effective method for the recycling of composite PVC materials such as flooring, tarpaulins and foam-back vinyl sheet.

It is recommended that a feasibility study be conducted to evaluate the viability of installing a solvent-based PVC recycling plant in Australia, in terms of the availability of PVC waste and the associated operational economics.

General

Opportunities exist for the collection of PVC products at end of life, but these are infrequently taken up.

It is recommended that studies on collection and recycling feasibility be conducted on products such as water, drainage and irrigation pipes, electrical conduit, cladding and weather boards, guttering, floor and wall coverings as well as industrial and garden hose.