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.
In 2018, the Victorian state’s Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group (MWRRG) provided a $20,000 grant to part fund an investigation into the feasibility of recycling vinyl coated fabrics into roof tiles, one of the product concepts identified in Porject ReMake. The VersrTile project enabled an expert multidisciplinary team led by the Vinyl Council to design and test reprocessing techniques and form prototype roof tiles made from waste billboard skins. The project outcomes included testing the manufactured sample tiles, which found the tiles could resist weathering as required under applicable standards; however, further development is required on the tile prototypes to meet mechanical strength tests required for roof tiles.
A preliminary business case has been developed to understand the financial and production factors that will be required to manufacture these roof tiles economically and to assess their commercially feasibility. The significance of this project is that it identifies a potential reuse of a composite material into a durable, high volume product without the need to separate the polyester fibre from the vinyl.
A paper by one of the Vinyl Council's research partners, Dr. Sagar T Cholake, Research Associate, Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology, University of New South Wales, has been published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling Volume 136, September 2018 related to the Council's vinyl banner recycling project.
The paper, ‘Cost-effective and sustainable approach to transform end-of-life vinyl banner to value added product’ details a potential, new low-cost solution for waste PVC coated fabrics that does not require the separation of the PVC from the polyester fabric, overcoming a major barrier to recycling.
Testing by the UNSW team indicated that waste PVC-coated banners could be used to fabricate strong and durable composite panels for multiple indoor and outdoor applications and the paper shows one example of final product.
Life cycle analysis, conducted as part of the research, showed that replacing virgin PVC by recycled PVC from banner emits 78% less greenhouse gas emissions (kg CO2 equivalent).
Access this paper through the online journal here.
The Vinyl Council has updated its industry strategy aimed at facilitating growth in sustainable PVC recycling practices in Australia.
Developed through consultations with members, industry and government, and at the PVC ReSource Summit held in late 2015, the strategy will direct future actions of the Vinyl Council and the sector.
PVC - the third most commonly used polymer in Australia - is recyclable, however, results show that only low volumes of PVC wastes are recovered, largely because most PVC is used in durable products, and less in packaging (which is where most waste and recycling policies and resources are focussed).
The VCA estimates around 66,900 tonnes ofrecyclablePVC product goes to landfill each year. This is wasted material that could be reprocessed into new quality product by Australian workers and firms, improving Australian productivity, economy and the environment.
The VCA and its members are committed to advancing PVC recycling and reprocessing. The updated industry strategy aims to address barriers, to share knowledge, data and expertise and to encourage innovation of reprocessing, product design and recycling capability.
There are six parts to the strategy and three especially form the foundation:
The VCA has established successful vinyl recylcing programs including the PVC Recycling in Hospitals program which is now in place at over 60 Australian hospitlas. The VCA thanks all those who contribute to the success of PVC recycling in Australia and looks forward to working with many to achieve the actions for improved results for Australia's recycling rate, productivity and manufacturing future.