Versatile and recyclable, PVC (vinyl) provides significant benefits as a specialist packaging material; yet recovering this material for sustainable reuse presents challenges. Sophi MacMillan, Chief Executive of the Vinyl Council of Australia offers some practical solutions.
For more than half a century, PVC or vinyl has been used on a global basis to meet specific functional food and beverage packaging needs. It suits many different food types, offering excellent clarity, unsurpassed physical properties, including heat tolerance, controllable gas and moisture vapour transmission capabilities and exceptional sealing performance.
Most vinyl is used in long life products, particularly building products from pipes, cabling and flooring to window frames and wall profiles, all of which are recyclable. Vinyl used in packaging – such as bottles, thermoformed punnets, pharma blister packs and cling films - represents about 6% of the material’s usage in Australia.
In these applications, vinyl plays an important role in protecting food from contamination and keeping it fresher for longer, while helping to reduce unnecessary food waste. It also protects a variety of high value consumer products, from pharmaceuticals to toys, razors and batteries. In healthcare, vinyl is used in many critical medical items, such as intravenous fluid bags and oxygen hoses. Although a small volume polymer packaging material, it has specific, necessary uses with a relatively low environmental footprint compared to alternatives.
Without doubt, vinyl has revolutionised the way we live our modern lives, helping to deliver safer healthcare, protecting our food and delivering drinking water. Given the high profile of plastics in the media, attention must focus on how we treat this recyclable material at end of life and recover it for beneficial reuse, including energy.
Post-consumer rigid PVC packaging is collected by most local councils around Australia. With existing infra-red sorting technologies, it can be sorted into a defined stream, reprocessed and used as recyclate for use in new products manufactured in Australia. However, at just over 5% of all plastic packaging materials (industrial and consumer) used in Australia, vinyl packaging is only a small proportion of total household packaging waste and is often considered uneconomically viable to sort and recycle.
The 2017-18 recycling rate of PVC packaging waste in Australia is reported to be 7.2% - which is low when compared to the overall average rate of 20.6% for all plastic packaging. (Source - 2017-18 Australian Plastics Recycling Survey published by Envisage Works, 30 January 2019). Nevertheless, clean, separated vinyl waste has value and collection has been actively encouraged by industry.
Clean, separated vinyl waste is relatively easy to recycle, requiring less energy for reprocessing than all other polymers. Using recycled vinyl in new products replaces virgin material and reduces carbon emissions associated with manufacturing virgin vinyl by about 80 to 85%, significantly lowering the carbon footprint of new vinyl products.
While technology exists to identify and sort PVC, few Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) are currently operating these systems because of ‘low volumes’. Yet substitution of a small handful of PVC packaging items would almost certainly lead to higher environmental impacts and higher waste volumes in terms of food waste, product damage or alternative non-recyclable composite packaging materials. It will also not remove PVC entirely from the waste stream, so an effective solution to remove PVC ‘contamination’ would be required regardless.
In my view, we need to consider whether the system of use is ‘open’ or ‘closed’ and how these waste plastics can be collected and recovered effectively in both systems for processing into new products, giving it a value as a raw material.
Examples of a ‘closed’ approach might be a major event, an airline or a hospital, where all the plastic waste can feasibly be collected, sorted, segregated and ultimately recycled as single, clean polymer waste streams. An excellent example of PVC packaging being collected and recycled is that of IV bags in healthcare. Schemes in Australia (our PVC Recycling in Hospitals Program), South Africa, Thailand and the UK successfully demonstrate that this material can be separated at waste source, collected and recycled into useful new products.
Conversely, in an ‘open’ system, such as take-away restaurants, all ‘control’ of these waste plastics is lost once single-use plastic walks out the door.
As a material that meets so many of our modern-day needs effectively, we should give careful consideration to how we treat and reuse PVC at end-of-life.
Solution options should cover:
Demand is growing from manufacturers to increase the use of vinyl recyclate and signatory companies of our long-established PVC Stewardship Program are publicly committed to using recyclate in new products where standards permit.
Through greater collaboration between industry, manufacturers and the wider waste and recycling sector, the vinyl industry can be part of the solution and transform our plastic waste into a sustainable future resource.
A record 20 Signatory companies have achieved Excellence status under the Australian PVC Stewardship Program by demonstrating full compliance with key environmental objectives applicable to their businesses.
Launched in 2002, the Vinyl Council of Australia’s voluntary program commits participants to strive for continuous improvement in environmental and health outcomes by meeting a series of challenging targets and standards related to the life cycle of PVC products.
Progress reported by 45 Signatories towards greater sustainability throughout 2018 is summarised in the latest PVC Stewardship Program annual report. Of these, Baerlocher (M) SND BHD and Brenntag Australia have made the most outstanding improvement.
To achieve Excellence status, Signatories must comply with a set of stringent criteria that also requires them to question their suppliers’ as well as their own performance. This covers safe and sustainable use of additives; reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, resource efficiency, best practice manufacturing, and transparency and engagement.
Acknowledging the successful efforts of the 2018 Excellence in PVC Stewardship award winners, Sophi MacMillan, Chief Executive of the Vinyl Council of Australia said: “We’re delighted that a record number of Signatories have achieved Excellence; it’s the most since we implemented the program and in an environment where we are continually raising the bar for Excellence.
“It is also great to see year on year growth in the number of organisations joining the program, which is an indicator of its value to the industry and its position in the marketplace.”
Sophi highlighted how the success of the Vinyl Council’s program can be measured by an increased number of Signatories (84% in 2018, compared to 68% in 2017) who have embedded its environmental commitments into their respective business management systems.
“This speaks to a cultural change in the sector whereby product stewardship sits at the heart of good business practice,” she added.
Recycling figures continue their upward trend under the program’s goal to drive greater recovery of end-of-life PVC and uptake of recycled PVC content. In 2018, 719,336 kilograms of locally sourced PVC recyclate was used by Signatories in new goods, up from 633,392 kilograms in 2017 and 365,609 in 2016.
The Council’s PVC Circularity Taskforce is further strengthening the industry’s push for enhanced sustainability. Made up of industry and government representatives, the Taskforce provides leadership and guidance on enhancing recycling and recovery of PVC in Australia along circular economy principles.
Initiatives pursued by the Vinyl Council that support its overall vision include the VersrTile project, funded by industry and a $20,000 grant via the Melbourne Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group. The project identified a potential reuse for waste billboard skins in durable prototype roof tiles, without the need to separate the polyester fibre from the vinyl.
In the healthcare sector, the successful PVC Recycling in Hospitals Program continues to grow with more than 175 hospitals collecting up to 15 tonnes of medical grade PVC waste per month for recycling into new products, such as garden hose and outdoor playground matting.
PVC (vinyl) packaging - designated by the Plastics Identification Code number 3 - is recyclable.
Vinyl has long been used on a global basis to meet specific functional food and beverage packaging needs. It offers users excellent clarity, unsurpassed physical properties including heat tolerance, controllable gas and moisture vapour transmission capabilities and exceptional sealing performance. Unlike many other materials, Vinyl can be formed into a myriad of complex and functional forms to suit many different food types.
Most vinyl (>85%) is used in long life products, particularly building products, such as potable water pipe, conduit, cabling, flooring and window profiles, all of which are also recyclable in Australia. Vinyl used in packaging represents approximately 5 percent of the material’s usage in Australia.
Vinyl packaging is commonly used for clear, handled bottles such as for cordials; clamshells to protect fresh fruit, vegetables, bakery and other fresh food items; and as very light gauge film for wrapping and protecting fresh meat, produce, dairy and deli products. Vinyl plays an important role in keeping fresh food fresh, and in turn benefits consumers by protecting the fresh food from early spoilage or other forms of undesirable food contamination.
Vinyl is also used as secure blister packaging for high value products such as pharmaceuticals, batteries, razors, toys, and an array of other consumer products. An important material for healthcare, Vinyl is used in many critical medical items, such as intravenous fluid bags and body fluid hoses, used in the delivery and management of blood and other fluids in operating theatres and similar critical care situations.
Post-consumer PVC packaging is collected by most local councils around Australia and by industry directly from the healthcare system. It can be sorted into a defined stream, can be reprocessed and used as recyclate for use in new products manufactured in Australia. However, at just over five percent, vinyl packaging is only a small proportion of all plastic packaging materials (industrial and consumer) used in Australia.
The 2017-18 recycling rate of PVC packaging waste in Australia is reported to be 7.2% - which is low when compared to the overall average rate of 20.6% for all plastic packaging. (Source - 2017-18 Australian Plastics Recycling Survey published by Envisage Works, 30 January 2019).
Clean, separated vinyl waste has value and collection is actively encouraged by industry.
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 achievable when vinyl bottles were manually sorted for recycling, however very few MRFs operate such systems today.
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 the dominant two packaging polymers only – PET and HDPE – despite local demand for recovered vinyl for remanufacturing within Australia.
Post-industrial rigid vinyl packaging materials, such as thermoforming web scrap, is sought after by recyclers for use in other products.
Flexible vinyl packaging
A successful program currently operates across Australia’s healthcare sector. The ‘PVC Recycling in Hospitals’ scheme operates in over 170 healthcare facilities in Australia and New Zealand and collects approximately 15-20 tonnes a month of vinyl intravenous bags, 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 collection and recycling of post-consumer films and food wrap, regardless of polymer type. This is due to a number of reasons - high contamination from dirt, food waste and other non-plastic materials and contaminants; the wide range of polymers and other materials used to manufacture films, such as mono layer, multilayer and mixed polymer films; and the risk of films generally entangling and damaging traditional processing equipment at the MRF.
Nevertheless, the vinyl film industry in Australia has taken appropriate actions to reduce raw material use through down-gauging films and continually seeking ways to reduce the life cycle footprint of these products by way of material selection.
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 vinyl than that of other polymers, but this has been the reason it is considered a ‘contaminant’ in other polymer streams as it burns at higher temperatures.
Industry does not see vinyl as a contaminant; we see it as a resource. There is very 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 emerging initiatives by MRFs to separate rigid vinyl packaging and some other flexibles for local reprocessing and reuse in Australia.
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.
The Vinyl Council of Australia is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year amid on-going progress in guiding the continuous improvement and sustainable development of the Australian PVC industry.
Founded in 1998, the nation’s peak association for the PVC value chain has made great strides in changing perceptions and advancing the material’s sustainability over the past two decades.
Key achievements include the 2002 launch of the PVC Stewardship Program (PSP) that has been fostering advancements in innovation and sustainability throughout the Australian PVC industry, for both locally-made and imported products and the introduction of the Best Practice PVC third party accreditation scheme for products.
Recognised in rating tools such as Green Star and public and private procurement policies, Best Practice PVC requires strict compliance and has driven change through product global supply chains.
Acknowledged as one of the longest-standing product stewardship programs in Australia with a full life cycle approach, the PSP currently has 47 Signatories representing the majority of the Australian PVC industry. All are committed to driving positive measurable change in five key areas, such as transparency, resource efficiency and safe and sustainable use of additives.
The information and data collected through the program has helped inform industry and stakeholders, influence product design and ensure the Australian PVC industry continues to innovate.
Industry successes include the most stringent manufacturing benchmarks for raw material suppliers; a 98% reduction in lead additive use by Signatories since 2002; compliance by 90% of Signatories with the PVC Industry Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Charter; growing use of PVC recyclate in products placed in the market; research and development of innovative solutions for recycling PVC coated fabrics; and initiation of the recycling of medical devices. As the program evolves year to year, industry is driven to improve performance and reduce the environmental footprint of vinyl products along the entire value chain.
The Council’s thriving PVC Recycling in Hospitals program now operates in 160 hospitals throughout Australia and New Zealand, recycling more than 200 tonnes of high-grade PVC waste each year into new goods, such as playground mats and garden hose. Design of new product applications for the recyclate is currently being explored.
Vinyl Council Chief Executive Sophi MacMillan comments: “We have made major progress over the past two decades with some significant breakthroughs, both in how PVC is perceived and how it is increasingly being specified for sustainable applications. Through our ‘whole of life approach’ to PVC stewardship, today’s vinyl is a sound material choice.”
We have achieved this as an industry, continues Sophi, by ‘working together through a public voluntary commitment to address key aspects of the product life cycle based on credible science and life cycle assessments’.
As a low carbon and durable plastic, PVC provides solutions through its track record of stewardship, alignment with several global Sustainability Development Goals and its potential for circularity. Each tonne of recycled PVC will replace about one tonne of virgin PVC compound in new products, consuming 80% less energy and reducing carbon emissions.
In providing the platform to share information and engage with stakeholders, the PSP has developed partnerships and collaborations that are driving change through the industry and better understanding of supply chains for vinyl products placed on the Australian market.
Sophi adds: “In our 20th anniversary year, we are immensely proud of how far we’ve come on our continuous and evolving journey towards a circular economy for vinyl.”
Fostering innovation in recycling and encouraging circularity of materials in the economy is a challenging and complex endeavour, The Vinyl Council has been engaged in such activity for several years, working with members of the vinyl value chain to facilitate solutions to end-of-life PVC products.
Industry Recycling Strategy Manager, Helen Millicer will be presenting on this topic at the 2018 Waste Strategy Summit to be held in Sydney 26-28 June.
On 28 June, in a presentation entitled 'Pilots and Collaborators – taking the ‘squiggle’ out of developing recycling solutions', Helen will share how the Council works to collaborate widely with stakeholders to develop innovative approaches to waste recovery and recycling. As an example, she will outline the challenges and successes of initiating and managing a project to divert a complex end-of-life vinyl product from landfill and find beneficial uses for the raw materials.
Her talk will cover:
• How to implement concrete and effective recycling solutions in organisations
• Understanding the importance of collaboration between industries, organisations and governments in developing recycling strategy
• Learning how to take maximise the chance of success and take the 'squiggle' out of the process
• Some of the exciting possibilities of PVC recycling in Australia
Helen will then participate in a panel session with a number of experts.
The Vinyl Council of Australia wishes to clarify some recent reports about its increasingly successful PVC Recycling in Hospitals program.
Managed by the Vinyl Council of Australia and its member partners in the program – Baxter Healthcare, Aces Medical Waste and Welvic Australia – the PVC Recycling in Hospitals program is a local initiative to redirect high-grade PVC waste from hospitals to local recycling companies to be reprocessed in Australia and sold to Australian and New Zealand manufacturers who produce new, finished products such as garden hoses and outdoor playground matting.
Unlike other commercial and residential programs in Australia and New Zealand, the PVC Recycling in Hospitals program processes and recycles PVC material here in Australia, closing the loop on the manufacture, supply and disposal of PVC products in hospitals.
Thanks to the support and enthusiasm of hospitals, nurses and other healthcare professionals in Australia and New Zealand, the PVC Recycling in Hospitals program has now grown to more than 130 hospitals.
Over the past 12 months almost 200 tonnes of PVC waste from hospitals has been diverted from landfill to recycling.
At a time when residential recycling programs are under enormous pressure due to significant changes to waste management policies in China and its decision to restrict the importation of unsorted waste from other countries, the Vinyl Council confirms its PVC Recycling in Hospitals program remains unaffected by these changes in international waste management. We are proud that our industry program continues to lead by example as a local, innovative waste management and recycling program.
To support the growth of the PVC Recycling in Hospitals program, Welvic made a significant investment in modern recycling equipment last year and has created six new jobs at its Victorian PVC compounding plant.
Baxter Healthcare, a local manufacturer of hospital IV fluids bags, has also invested in education and training in the healthcare sector and provides logistics support.
"We seek to assure the healthcare sector and its staff that the PVC Recycling in Hospitals program is strong and is not affected by China’s ban on unsorted materials. All the medical waste collected under the program has always been, and continues to be, reprocessed and used here or in New Zealand," said Vinyl Council's CEO Sophi MacMillan.
"This example-setting program is growing precisely because it is supported by the local vinyl manufacturing industry and the healthcare sector as product consumers. It is a clear demonstration that circularity within Australia can work."
The Vinyl Council is calling on other industries and manufacturers to support the program and for measures to strengthen the local recycling industry.
"We would like to see greater support and incentives from government to encourage local design and manufacturing of products that use recyclate, to drive demand for recyclate use in Australia,” said Sophi.
“And we’d like policies to encourage procurement of those products that demonstrate they are closing the circularity gap in Australia.”
Advances in technology, sustainability and product stewardship over the last 20 years have helped to transform the PVC sector across Australia and turn vinyl into a ‘sound choice of material’, delegates learnt at PVC AUS 2018: Shaping the Future.
Organised by the Vinyl Council of Australia in its 20th anniversary year, the two-day Sydney event in March shared latest developments in PVC formulations and best practice manufacturing that demonstrate the sector’s commitment to continuous improvement.
The event was supported by headline sponsors Austria-based Greiner Extrusion GmbH, Krauss-Maffei Berstorff from Munich, Germany and Italian machinery manufacturer PlasMec.
Vinyl Council Chief Executive Sophi Macmillan commented: “We are driving continuous improvement through the industry in Australia, for both locally-made and imported products, and this is driving change through PVC product supply chains.
“One of the longest standing product stewardship programs in Australia, our PVC Stewardship Program is leading in many areas. These include its life cycle approach, specific and measurable commitments, transparency, and focus on continuous improvement across the value chain.”
Currently 47 companies are Signatories to the Program, representing the majority of the Australian PVC industry. These companies include manufacturers of PVC resin, additives and end-products, PVC compounders and product importers. Major PVC applications represented in the Program include companies manufacturing or importing packaging, cables, windows, flooring, pipes, formwork, medical products, and profiles.
Among the industry successes Sophi highlighted were: a 99.45% reduction in lead additive use since 2002, the Signatories’ 90% compliance with the PVC Industry Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Charter and several PVC recycling initiatives covering advertising banners, commercial vinyl flooring and medical devices.
In his US perspective on ‘Vinyl for a Purpose-Driven Sustainable Development’, Cristian Barcan, VP Sustainability & Industry Affairs at the Vinyl Institute covered key sustainability progress. This includes a 90% reduction in VCM emissions since 1983 and the elimination of lead and cadmium stabilisers. More than 450,000 tonnes of PVC are recycled annually in the US.
Cristian observed: “Unprecedented challenges lie ahead, we have to change. We don’t have three planets of natural resources; doing more with less is needed to address the needs of the next generation.”
Dr Tracy Wakefield of Plustec Pty Ltd outlined the benefits of uPVC Tilt n Turn windows and how their functionality, in terms of low-maintenance, ease-of-cleaning, security and superior ventilation are the future of windows in Australia – and crucially, suit its climate.
With 85% of windows installed in Australian homes still single-glazed, Gerhard Hoffmann of Greiner Extrusion emphasised how the insect-proof, thermally-efficient, 100% recyclable and corrosion-resistant properties of uPVC windows represent a cost-effective fenestration opportunity.
Advances in formulations were a key topic with Dane Tallen of stabiliser manufacturers Baerlocher exploring how calcium-based solutions could provide cost-effective and sustainable solutions for injection-moulding applications; while Dexter Chan from Arkema discussed the improved performance merits of acrylic impact modifiers in replacing chlorinated polyethylene (CPE) in rigid PVC.
Several updates on technology developments in the Australian PVC sector included a new chemical technology to separate PVC and laminated materials. Dennis Collins from PVC Separation explained how their two-stage chemical and environmentally-friendly process works for a variety of materials recycling, from PVC construction products to shoes, medical and food packaging items.
Dario Soncin of PlasMec covered latest developments in PVC dry blend preparation that can contribute to energy savings. Following him, Christian Birzer of Krauss-Maffei Berstorff revealed interesting advances in plastic processing machinery, including increasing the speed limit for pipe, increasing the production density and flexibility of pelletizing and narrowing the limits for u-PVC sheet extrusion.
Arjen Sevenster, Technical and Environmental Affairs Senior Manager at the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers (ECVM) highlighted major sustainability progress in the European PVC industry and how the VinylPlus Voluntary Commitment is supporting the Circular Economy objectives for PVC.
Summing up, Sophi concluded: “With a high calibre of speakers and content, our conference attracted nearly 150 people and has been a huge success. It has demonstrated that PVC, as a durable, low-carbon plastic with the potential for circularity, can contribute to shaping a more sustainable future for all.”
Vinyl Council CEO Sophi MacMillan with Senator Kim Carr
Terence Jeyaretnam, EY
Gerhard Hoffmann, Greiner Extrusion