In praise of plastic

10th May 2012


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Mark Everard reports on how the European plastics industry has been cleaning up its act

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. Just as there is no one more eager to grasp a helping hand than a drowning man, so too there aren’t any more eager to learn about sustainable development than those facing potentially ruinous consequences of unsustainability.

In 1999, at a meeting with senior representatives of the two polyvinyl chloride (PVC) manufacturing companies in the UK, I was asked whether PVC had a future. The industry had taken a battering from environmental groups and experienced negative media coverage, so the question was sincere. The companies could either make changes in how PVC was produced or they could invest in alternative materials.

The easy answer would have been to go with the momentum of the day and cease PVC production. But this would have been ignoring two rather important things. First, PVC is a widespread and versatile material with many beneficial applications. And, second, it was not clear that potential substitute materials were automatically more sustainable.

At the time I worked as a representative for the sustainable development charity The Natural Step (TNS) and we decided to work with the sector to improve its environmental performance using a TNS science-based tool to analyse issues and identify solutions.

The challenges

It was possible to envisage PVC in a sustainable future provided five challenges were progressively addressed. These were that the industry:

  • makes a long-term commitment to becoming carbon neutral;
  • commits itself in the long term to a controlled-loop system of PVC waste management;
  • ensures that releases of persistent organic substances from the whole life cycle do not result in systematic increases in concentration in nature;
  • reviews the use of all additives consistent with attaining full sustainability; and
  • raises awareness about sustainable development across the industry.

For a carbon-intensive industry, both in terms of material and energy inputs, and in a society where products were routinely disposed of rather than recovered for recycling, these challenges were massive.

Add to this the fact that the PVC polymer may comprise as little as 50% by weight of some PVC applications, such as floor coverings, and it was clear that a whole complex of additives also had to be tackled along with supply chains. It is hardly surprising that the challenges were seen as daunting, and remain so even though significant progress is being made.

The TNS study coincided with development of a Europe-wide initiative setting a range of voluntary commitments looking ahead to 2010. This industry-led programme, Vinyl 2010, signed in March 2000 and covering companies in the pre-enlargement EU-15, contained many elements consistent with the challenges outlined by the TNS research.

Into 2010

Vinyl 2010 was not cheap. Over its 10-year lifespan, investments under the initiative totalled more than €57 million, although investment in energy efficiency and large reductions in the potential for the generation of hazardous chemicals in the manufacturing process both had direct paybacks.

Other significant investments were made in creating the infrastructure and markets for controlled-loop recycling, including post-manufacturing and end-of-life take-back schemes under the Recovinyl, Vinyl Foundation and Roofcollect programmes, the Vinyloop and Texyloop processes, and the creation of new PVC product lines across the EU PVC converting industry.

By the completion of Vinyl 2010, many successes were recorded where targets had been exceeded, including:

  • Recycling of post-consumer PVC waste reached 260,842 tonnes in 2010, an increase of 220,000 tonnes on 1999 volumes and exceeding the 10-year target of 200,000 tonnes.
  • Phase-out of cadmium stabilisers, completed in the EU-15 by 2001 and in the EU-27 by the end of 2007.
  • Substitution of lead-based stabilisers running well ahead of schedule, with a total reduction of around 72% in the EU-27, exceeding the 10-year target of 50% across the EU-15.
  • All members of the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers were subject to a final verification, achieving 94% compliance with industry charters.
  • Continued research by the plasticiser industry, reflecting regulatory and market demand but also progress towards sustainability targets.
  • Engagement of trade associations, representing makers of windows, pipes, roofing, flooring and PVC-coated fabrics, in tackling these challenges.
  • Continuing dialogue with stakeholders, involving TNS to develop a successor sustainability initiative.
  • Independent auditing and verification of outcomes by external third parties.

Moving on

Some critics argue that Vinyl 2010 was a cynical move to avoid regulation. However, for many in the sector, addressing the challenges highlighted by the TNS and meeting the Vinyl 2010 commitments represented a genuine attempt to both make true progress with sustainable development and to profit from the process.

There is no conflict between these twin aspirations. A commitment to sustainable development implies a clear strategic direction, not merely acting when driven by bottom-up regulation or bad PR, so as to anticipate likely future development of public concern, regulatory responses and market drivers.

It is not merely about profitability in the short term, but about anticipating future markets. Those industries and companies that achieve this in an increasingly sustainable way are investing in a more secure business and should enjoy sustained profitability.

The pursuit of clearly articulated, long-term sustainability targets and medium-term commitments has, undeniably, spurred industry-wide innovation and cooperation in ways that would not have occurred if its disparate players had simply waited for regulatory compulsions or market pressure.

The ambitious 10-year programme of commitments under Vinyl 2010 took the industry through to 2010, but is the job done? The five key TNS challenges relate to the longer-term future when the full conditions of sustainability, as defined by science-based TNS principles, have been fully met. The industry, at European level, has agreed on a new programme of commitments to take it forward through the next decade.

The new set of voluntary commitments, known as VinylPlus, was launched on 22 June 2011. It establishes a set of intermediate challenges to which the many players in the complex PVC supply chain have committed to address. These are:

  • controlled-loop management;
  • reduced organochlorine emissions;
  • sustainable use of additives;
  • sustainable energy use and climate stability; and
  • sustainability awareness.

Targets under the strategy include recycling 800,000 tonnes of PVC annually by 2020; replacing lead additives across the EU-27 by 2015; and launching a VinylPlus label by the end of 2012.

Going wider

In the 13 years since dialogue was initiated between TNS and the UK PVC industry, great changes have been seen. There is now only one UK manufacturer of PVC, subsuming the former two companies, and society is more literate about sustainable development.

PVC has remained a target for some environmental campaigning groups; but it also promotes practical engagement with sustainable development challenges, which has resulted in the industry becoming a hotbed of innovation and learning.

Over the years it has become increasingly clear that the five testing sustainability challenges set by TNS for the PVC industry apply to pretty much all manufactured materials. Incautious manufacture or disposal of non-PVC materials is not automatically less likely to generate problems even if they do not contain chlorine.

One of the reasons for this is that chlorine – from salt, animal and plant material and other natural and man-made sources, including as contaminants of sorted materials – is abundant in waste streams relative to the minute traces necessary for the formation of dioxins and other problematic substances. So, even in “clean” waste streams, chlorine is rarely, if ever, a limit to the formation of complex and persistent substances during uncontrolled combustion.

Like many other conflicts highlighted by the TNS sustainability challenges for PVC, the issue of generation of persistent organochlorine substances relates to the entire life cycle of these materials – specifically how they are used and disposed of by society and not simply the manufacturing processes that have become increasingly rigorously controlled.

Some persistence of substances is also being seen as an asset to sustainability rather than a liability. One example is durable water pipes and electricity conduits, which may have a 100-year design life and which can then be recovered for recycling for further life cycles to provide significant material efficiency, an important benefit in a resource-constrained future.

Such longevity also addresses issues associated with the waste arising from, and disruption caused by, the replacement of shorter-lived and potentially less recoverable materials, such as ductile iron water pipes.

The same is true in many long-life construction applications such as window frames, in which PVC averts the need for periodic application of potentially harmful and labour-intensive paints or other preservatives during life.

Equally, the use of persistent substances in some short-lived applications may be wasteful as well as potentially contributing to sustainability concerns if waste separation and recovery is impossible. Industry is more discerning today about the contribution of durable materials, as long as other sustainability challenges such as recovery are addressed.

We also live in an increasingly globalised world. This means that some of the PVC in products consumed in Europe may not be manufactured where VinylPlus operates. Users therefore need to be mindful of the provenance of PVC in products, regardless of requirements under the EU REACH Regulation (1907/2007) pertaining to some substances in imported products.

Branding and product differentiation is important, recognising the potentially very different sustainability “footprints” of sources of PVC (or other materials) that may ostensibly seem similar but actually arise through different processes.

The journey continues

Labelling one material uniformly bad, while another is automatically seen as good, without examining their full life-cycle impacts, is not the way forward. The UK and the European PVC industry today is a different beast from that which existed in 1999, although far from perfect. Its constituent players are as heterogeneous as in any other industry, but they are making progress and, in many instances, are far more pioneering.

The holy grail of full sustainability remains far distant in a world of burgeoning populations, declining resources and few easy answers. PVC may not top a list of environment-friendly industries, nor is it likely to do so any time soon, but it has certainly grappled with some daunting challenges and made tangible progress. It has also set future commitments in advance of regulatory requirements, and openly acknowledges the continuing challenges on the path ahead.

Plastic products

As a relatively lightweight, strong and corrosion-resistant material, with excellent thermal and electrical insulation properties, and one that is very malleable and easily modified, plastic is increasingly used in a range of industries, including packaging, building and construction, transport, medical and health, electronics and agriculture.

Across Europe, 50% of goods are packaged in plastics, although it only accounts for 17% of all packaging weight. In 2010, the European building and construction sector consumed 9.54 million tonnes of plastics – 21% of total European plastics consumption – making it the second largest plastic application after packaging.

Plastic components are increasingly used by the automotive sector, as they typically weigh 50% less than similar components made from other materials. According to the EU plastics industry, for every kilogramme of weight reduction, a car will emit 20kg less CO2 over its operating life.

Electrical goods such as flat-screen televisions are also common, as liquid crystalline plastics (LCD), for example, use 65% less power than ordinary screens with cathode ray tubes, while the use of plastics in the medical and health sector ranges from pill capsules and hearing aids, to orthopaedic devices and stitches.


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