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:
- Separating PVC at source in ‘closed’ consumption systems to achieve a clean waste stream, such as the hospital PVC recycling program. This requires committed collaboration by brand owners, users and the PVC packaging industry to explore the feasibility of establishing collection and recycling schemes, and ultimately, end markets
- Using existing or new techniques and technologies to better separate PVC from co-mingled waste streams at a greater number of Secondary Sorting Facilities around the country, after the removal of higher volume PET and HDPE
- Researching, assessing and supporting the commercialisation and adoption of new technologies – such as chemical separation – to improve production of clean, single material streams for reprocessing
- Developing Waste to Energy projects for co-mingled residues
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.