PVC waste treatment options surveyed

Consultant report for Commission finds recycling level will reach maximum of 18% by 2020

Mechanical recycling of PVC will rise from its current level of under 3% to 18% by 2020 if it is encouraged by legislation and no controls are placed on plastic containing heavy metals, the first comprehensive study of PVC waste management in the EU has concluded. If PVC containing metals is excluded from recycling, the rate will increase to only 7%, it finds. The low recycling levels are due to the low costs of both producing and landfilling PVC, it adds.

The findings are contained in a three-part survey which examines the recycling, incineration and landfilling of PVC, commissioned from independent consultants by the European Commission in 1997 and published this week. The study will form the basis of any future EU legislation on PVC waste management, but will more immediately result in a Commission paper outlining different policy options for the plastic.

In its various forms PVC contains the toxic metals lead and cadmium as stabilisers and various compounds such as phthalates as plasticisers. Greenpeace has waged a long campaign to phase out the substance, arguing that that recycling levels are too low and that incineration and landfilling are too dangerous as alternatives. Industry has argued that regulation is unnecessary and stresses its many useful applications. The studies should allow the Commission to navigate a path between the two positions.

The findings underline the magnitude of the problem the EU will face in treating PVC in 2020: waste arisings are predicted to increase by 80% to 7.2m tonnes annually from the current level of 4.1m tonnes. The study looks at three recycling options for PVC: the "business-as-usual" scenario of adopting no legislation; the "ecological risk minimisation scenario" in which PVC containing cadmium and lead is banned from recycling; and the "selective improvements scenario" in which the toxic risk is of "limited importance" and recycling is maximised.

Under the business-as-usual scenario the recycling rate would increase to between 8-9%, with recycling costs of euros 90-110 annually, the study says. Banning PVC with heavy metals from recycling would cost euros180-190m, while maximising recycling of all PVC would cost euros 230-290m, it adds.

The investigation was prompted by internal Commission disagreement over whether PVC should be banned in car manufacture under the draft end-of-life vehicles directive. The Commission resolved the dispute by pledging a cross-sectoral policy. A communication or green paper was due in April but has been delayed indefinitely while the Commission assesses the studies.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111; see also the studies: Mechanical recycling of PVC wastes, The behaviour of PVC in landfill and The influence of PVC on the quantity and hazardousness of flue gas cleaning residues from incineration

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