Vinyl has long been used to meet specific packaging needs due to its excellent transparency and high clarity, an ability to seal and sterilize and because it allows gas transmission important for some food products.
Vinyl (or polyvinyl chloride) packaging is used for clear, handled bottles such as for cordials; clamshells to protect fruit and vegetables, cakes and other food stuffs; and as film for wrapping and protecting fresh meat, dairy and deli products. It is also used as secure blister packaging for products such as batteries, razors, toys, pharmaceuticals and an array of consumer products, and as packaging for the safe delivery of medical products like intravenous fluids.
However, vinyl packaging is a very small proportion (reliable data is hard to come by but it may be 2-4 percent) of all packaging materials (industrial and consumer) used in Australia . Most vinyl is used in long life products, particularly building products including potable water pipe, sewer pipe, conduit, cabling, flooring and window profiles.
Rigid vinyl packaging
Rigid vinyl packaging such as bottles and thermoformed packaging is recyclable when collected from kerbside and sorted from other polymers and packaging materials. Most councils around Australia have included these products in collections for many years.
Post-consumer vinyl bottles are separated out where manual sorting systems operate at Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) and sent to recyclers. The Vinyl Cycle bottle recycling program that operated for many years until 2012 demonstrated that a recycling rate of over 50% was achieved when vinyl bottles were manually sorted for recycling; however, today very few MRFs operate such systems.
Optical sorting technologies exist based on Near InfraRed cameras that can identify polymer types, including vinyl, and colours (except black). These achieve high purity streams, generally 93-96% for most polymers . In Australia, however, use of such technologies has largely been limited to identifying only the dominant two packaging polymers – PET and HDPE – despite local demand for recovered vinyl for remanufacturing within Australia.
Post-industrial rigid vinyl packaging material such as thermoforming scrap, is sought after as a recyclate for use in other products.
Flexible vinyl packaging
A successful program operates across Australia’s healthcare sector to collect flexible vinyl used in intravenous (IV) bags. The PVC Recycling in Hospitals scheme operates in over 160 healthcare facilities in Australia and New Zealand and collects approximately 15-20 tonnes a month of flexible vinyl packaging, tubing and oxygen masks. This material is reprocessed locally into new long-life products. The success of the program is in part due to the separation at source of the vinyl products, reducing contamination from other polymers and materials.
Unfortunately, there is little if any collection and recycling of post-consumer films and food wrap, regardless of polymer type. This is due to high contamination from dirt and other non-plastic materials, the mix of polymers used to manufacture films including multilayer mixed polymer films and the risk of films entangling and damaging equipment. Nevertheless, the vinyl film industry in Australia has taken actions to reduce raw material use through down-gauging films and continually seeks ways to reduce the life cycle footprint of these products.
Benefits of sorting and recycling vinyl packaging
Clean, separated vinyl waste is relatively easy to recycle as vinyl is a thermoplastic. Vinyl’s melting point is relatively low which means less energy is required for reprocessing it than compared to other polymers, but this is the reason it is considered a ‘contaminant’ in other polymer streams as it burns at higher temperatures.
There is good reason therefore to implement technologies and systems to separate vinyl early in the kerbside waste sorting process.
Using recycled vinyl in new products replaces the use of virgin vinyl compound and reduces the carbon emissions associated with manufacturing virgin vinyl by about 80-85 percent. This significantly lowers the carbon footprint of new vinyl products.
Local manufacturers of vinyl products have indicated that they have an appetite to increase the use of vinyl recyclate if reliable, continuous sources of recyclate are made available. Signatory companies to the long-established PVC Stewardship Program are publicly committed to use recyclate in the products they supply to the market unless product standards prohibit it. The Council therefore welcomes initiatives by MRFs to separate rigid vinyl packaging and some flexibles for local reprocessing and reuse in Australia.
PVC packaging is recyclable as it is collected by most councils and in the healthcare system, can be sorted into a defined stream, can be reprocessed and used as recyclate in new products manufactured in Australia, and has value.