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End-of-life Environmental Issues with PVC in Australia

Prepared by Dr. John Scheirs,
ExcelPlas Polymer Technology (EPT) for
Environment Australia, June 2003

4. The PVC Industry and its Products

4.1 PVC Produced Domestically

PVC is generally available for processing in two forms:

Suspension PVC resin used in Australia is supplied primarily by Australian Vinyls with a small proportion being imported. All of the PVC manufactured by Australian Vinyls is sold direct to the trade in powder form, where it is generally compounded with additives such as stabilizers and plasticizers. Emulsion PVC accounts for less than 5% of the Australian PVC market and is no longer manufactured domestically.

PVC products can be characterised as either rigid PVC (representing about two thirds of total volume used) or flexible PVC (accounting for about one third of total usage). The main applications of rigid PVC include pipes, profiles, sheet and bottles. Flexible PVC is mainly used in cables, flooring, coated fabrics and instrument panels for cars.

PVC is a highly versatile polymer that can be processed readily by all common plastics fabrication and conversion techniques (largely by profile extrusion, injection moulding, film blowing and calendering). In addition, there are some novel processes developed specifically for PVC such as slush moulding and dip moulding of PVC plastisols.

In the 2000/2001 financial year, resin production from Australian Vinyls was 173,600 tonnes. In January 2002, Australian Vinyls announced the closure of its Altona resin plant. The production capacity from the remaining Laverton operation is estimated to be 130,000 tpa.

4.2 PVC Consumed Domestically

The estimated level of PVC consumption in Australia varies depending on the source. Using the equation below, Nolan ITU have calculated that the consumption of PVC was some 194,328 t for 2001 (Allen, 2002):

PVC consumption = PVC resin production + PVC resin imports - PVC resin exports + PVC recyclate.

Note that this figure for PVC consumption does not include finished PVC products imported into Australia. From the Plastics News International Database (http://plasticsnews.net) it is estimated that imports of finished PVC products accounts for an additional 31,000 t (Plastics News International Industry Statistics Database, 2002). This makes the overall PVC consumption figure around 225,500 tpa for Australia.

Table 4.1. Usage of PVC by Market in Australia (for the year 2000)
Application
Quantity ('000 tonnes)
Level of usage (%)
Pipe/conduit
142.2
63.0
Wire and Cable
22.0
9.7
Injection moulding
15.1
6.7
Film and Sheet
7.0
3.1
General extrusion
15.9
7.0
Blow moulding
4.0
1.7
Coated fabrics
1.0
0.4
Bonding and Adhesives
2.1
0.9
Monofilament and Yarn
0.7
0.3
Other (e.g. foam, compression moulding)
15.5
6.9
Total
225.5
100%
Source: Plastics News International (PNI) Industry Statistics, 2000.

4.3 Lifetime of PVC Products

The majority of PVC is utilized in long-term applications (having life expectancies in excess of 10 years, and even 50 years or longer in the case of PVC pipe). This is particularly the case in the building and construction sector (which constitutes approximately 80% of the PVC market) where it is used for diverse applications including sewerage pipe, cable trays, guttering, house siding, wire and cable insulation, flooring etc (www.av.com.au).

The table below shows the lifetimes for a range of PVC products. It is significant to note that greater levels of end-of-life PVC will become available in the next ten years since the PVC building products installed in the 1960s and 1970s will be coming to the end of their service life.

Table 4.2. Production start-up and average lifetimes for various PVC products.
Application
Production Start-Up (Europe)
Average Lifetime (years)
Pipe and fittings
1950
46
Window profiles
1965
40
Cables
1950
30
Flooring
1950
15
Rigid Films (Packaging)
1945
1
Bottles
1960
1
Source: Helmuth Leitner, Solvay, Belgium (2002)

The following table shows a more detailed profile of average service lifetimes for specific PVC products. These lifetimes were used in a European model to predict the amount of PVC entering the waste stream and to forecast levels in the coming years.

Table 4.3. Average service lifetimes for specific PVC products
Application
Average Lifetime (years)
Cables (buildings)
35
Flexible sheet/Film (building)
30
Paste flooring
10
Calendered flooring
20
Wall coverings
5
Flexible tubes/hose
10
Pipes and fittings
46
Coated membranes (building)
10
Window profiles
40
Other building profiles (rigid)
20
Cables (electrical)
10
Cables (auto)
12
Tarpaulins
12
Underbody Coatings
12
Automotive applications
12
Medical
4
Furniture
17
Credit cards
3
Rigid film (packaging)
1
Bottles (packaging)
1
Average for all PVC
15.5
Source: EuPC Data Base, Sept., 1999 obtained from Helmuth Leitner, Solvay, Belgium

Apart from the average lifetimes of PVC products, the other factor that influences the amount of available end-of-life PVC is the availability factor which considers the likelihood that the end-of-life PVC products will enter the post-consumer waste stream. For instance, PVC pipes at end-of-life are generally left in situ (ie. in the ground) and are therefore not available for collection and recycling. Data from Europe suggests that 71% of PVC pipes are left in situ and therefore are simply not readily available for recovery. Availability factors estimated for various PVC products in Europe are shown below:

Table 4.4. Availability factor for PVC products (in Europe)

Application
Availability Factor
Pipe and fittings
29%
Window profiles
90%
Cables
85%
Flooring
80%
Rigid Films (Packaging)
60%
Bottles
77%
Source: ECVM data (2002).

These figures would need to be adjusted to reflect Australian conditions, since for example PVC window frames are not widely used in Australia. Also the availability factor for PVC pipes and fittings is likely to be much lower in Australia since the majority of end-of-life PVC pipe is left in situ. In packaging applications, a local study (conducted by Nolan ITU) found that only some 30% of PVC bottles sold are placed out for kerbside collection (Nolan, 2001).

4.4 Major PVC Markets

The following are the main markets in Australia for PVC resin:

4.4.1 PVC Pipe

PVC pipe is the largest single market for PVC resin in Australia, accounting for approximately 142,000 tpa out of a total of about 194,000 tpa of PVC resin consumed nationally. Three main pipe manufacturers (Vinidex, Iplex and Key Plastics) account for 90% of the market. It is interesting to note that the multilayer storm-water pipes (produced by Key Plastics) actually contain rigid PVC recyclate (sourced from scrap PVC profile) sandwiched between two layers of virgin PVC.

Lead stabilizers are used in PVC non-pressure pipe at levels of approximately 1.5% basic/neutral lead stearate and/or tribasic lead sulphate. Lead stabilizers are not used in potable water pipe - instead Ca/Zn stabilizer systems are used.

4.4.2 PVC Cable

PVC is used to insulate electrical cables such as power cable, data cable and domestic cabling. The PVC cable market is dominated by a few major manufacturers such as Olex (National Cable) and Pirelli. Manufacturers of cable in Australia buy both PVC resin and PVC compounds. The total consumption of PVC for cable insulation applications in Australia is approximately 22,000 tpa (Plastics News International Industry Statistics Database, 2002). PVC cables use tribasic lead sulphate and calcium/zinc stabilizers.

4.4.3 PVC Packaging

Approximately 13,000 tpa of PVC (some 7% of the overall PVC consumption in Australia) is utilised in packaging applications. About 6000 tpa is taken up by the bottle market and the remainder of about 7000 tpa is employed in flexible packaging (e.g. cling wrap and film) and rigid packaging applications (e.g. blisterpacks, thermoformed products) (Nolan ITU, 2001). The PVC bottle market can be summarized as in the following table.

Table 4.5. Market split of local versus imported bottles
PVC bottle producers
Quantity (tpa)
Local producers
3940
Imported bottles
2060
Total bottles
6000
Source: 'Vinyl Bottle Industry Action Plan', National Packaging Covenant, October, 2000.

Peteron Plastics (Melbourne) is the largest domestic manufacturer of PVC bottles with the majority of the bottles sold to Schweppes Cottees for cordial. Hollywood Plastics (VIC/NSW) is another major manufacturer of PVC bottles and produce mainly clear PVC bottles for fruit juice and cordial and coloured bottles for use in household cleaning chemicals. Clear PVC bottles represent approximately 90% of PVC bottle applications. The remainder of PVC bottles are used largely in edible oil packaging, although this market is rapidly diminishing as fillers are switching to PET. For instance, one of the largest edible oil producers in Australia (Goodman Fielder), has converted all of its PVC oil bottle lines to PET with the most recent line in WA completed this year (Langusch, 2002).

Clear PVC sheet is widely used for thermoforming of blister packaging and trays by companies. The usage of PVC sheet and film in Australia amounts to some 7000 tpa (PNI Statistics, 2001).

4.4.4 PVC Hose

PVC is widely used for the production of hoses in applications such as industrial hose, suction hose, pneumatic hose and fire hose. The major hose producers include Barfel, Eslan, RX and Premier. Approximately 13,000 tpa of PVC is used in hose applications.

4.4.5 PVC Automotive Applications

About 3-4% of PVC is used in the production of automotive parts including instrument panels, seat covers, arm rests, door cladding, wire covering, sealers, and under-coating. The PVC content of vehicles is distributed approximately as follows:

In recent years replacement of PVC by flexible alternatives such as polyolefin plastomers and polyurethanes has occurred. It is difficult however to reproduce the 'soft touch' characteristics of PVC and there is continued demand for PVC cladding, trim and dashboards. Nylex are the largest producer of calendered PVC for automotive fabric, trim and door cladding, producing approximately 2,400 tpa of calendered product.

4.4.6 PVC Profile

PVC is used to manufacture a range of profiles such as channel, strip, guttering and siding. This is not a major market in Australia however, compared with pipe and conduit. PVC has only 3% market penetration in the guttering market for example (Johnstone, 2002). Furthermore, PVC windows are not as popular in Australia as in Europe and the US.

4.5 Post-industrial PVC Waste Streams

Post-industrial PVC waste is often collected on site at PVC fabrication facilities. However, feedback from plastic scrap collectors indicates a continuing problem with contamination with other materials. This is attributed to the plastics industry not conducting proper source separation.

The two major recyclers of post-industrial PVC are Cryogrind (who process 1200 tpa of post-industrial PVC film and purgings) and Nylex SRM (who process 3000 tpa of decorative PVC, flexible sheet and off-specification compounds).

Some thermoformed sheet is also recovered via kerbside collection although the vast majority is landfilled. There is a highly competitive market for post-industrial PVC sheet sourced from off-cuts of stamped-out products (skeletal sheet or skeletal trim). Since this sheet is clear, non-printed and free of contamination it can be easily granulated and/or pulverized to give clean, consistent quality PVC recyclate.

Approximately 500 tpa of fibre-reinforced or foam-backed flexible PVC is sent to landfill from manufacturing operations that produce flexible PVC sheet and fabrics for automotive applications (Thompson, 2001). In Australia at present this material cannot be mechanically recycled due to the fibre reinforcement (polyester scrim) or the adhesively-bonded foam backing.

4.6 Post-consumer PVC Waste

Post-consumer PVC products are found in construction/demolition waste (e.g. cables, conduit, pipes), household waste (e.g. bottles, vinyl flooring) and electrical/electronics waste.

The two main streams of post-consumer PVC waste available for recycling at present in Australia are PVC containers and PVC cable insulation. Thus the approximate rate of post-consumer PVC recycling can be estimated as follows:

Total PVC cable insulation market =   22,000 tpa
Total PVC bottle market =   6,000 tpa
  Total PVC cable and bottle figures = 28,000 tpa
     
Total PVC cable recycling amount =   1500 tpa
Total PVC bottle domestic recycling amount =   360 tpa
Exported bottles in mixed plastic waste=   1460 tpa
  Total PVC cable and bottle recycling amount = 1,860 tpa

4.6.1 End-of-life PVC Cable

Approximately 1500-2000 tonnes (in 2001/2) of post consumer PVC cable insulation is recycled in Australia each year ('Vinyl Bottle Industry Action Plan', 2000). Cryogrind process approximately 900 tpa, while both Repeat Plastics and Pacific process some 240 tpa each and Nylex SRM processes approximately 90 tpa.

It is important to note that some PVC cable strippings are still being landfilled (Johnstone, 2002). Part of the reason for this is that copper recyclers are primarily concerned with recovery of the copper value and are less concerned with the recycling of the PVC insulation which they view as a waste stream. Thus they have little interest in the PVC insulation (which can comprise up to 50 % by weight) and which they consider a cheap by-product. Companies such as Nylex SRM are willing to purchase additional quantities of PVC cable strippings, provided it meets their incoming feedstock specifications. The residual copper content of the PVC strippings is frequently greater than 5%, which is too high for PVC recyclers to tolerate (Johnstone, 2002). Thus there could be opportunities for PVC recycling if copper recyclers better understood the value of their PVC cable product and supplied less contaminated materials.

4.6.2 End-of-life PVC Bottles

In order for end-of-life PVC bottles to be mechanically reprocessed by local PVC recyclers (e.g. Cryogrind), the PVC purity of the bales must reach at least 90% (Siganakis, 2002). To achieve this cleanness with the post-consumer PVC bottle stream it is necessary to change from the traditional negative sort (where PVC is rejected from a PET stream) to a positive sort (where the PVC is actively selected). Current x-ray sorting technology can easily achieve the required purity. Given the present costs for post-consumer PVC bottles (approx. $300/t) even hand sorting would be justified in some cases (Siganakis, 2002).

In October 2000 the Vinyl Council acknowledged that the 5% national recovery rate was insufficient and set a target to increase it to 25% over 3 years. This target is to be achieved primarily through increasing the number of municipalities from which PVC is actively collected. It was anticipated that the PVC bottle recycling rate would be approx. 10% by end of 2001 (Source: 'Vinyl Bottle Industry Acton Plan', National Packaging Covenant, October, 2000). Interestingly, the recovery rate for PVC bottles is higher than its actual recycling rate. The reason for this being that many of the PVC bottles end up in the mixed bottle stream (after sortation of PET and HDPE) and are baled and exported, predominantly to Asia. Of all the PVC bottles collected via kerbside collection schemes, approximately 80% are exported (see table below).

Table 4.6. PVC bottles recovered and recycled (or exported) in Australia
Activity
Quantity (tpa)
Total PVC bottles produced
6000
Total PVC collected (kerbside)
1800*
Bottles recycled by Cryogrind
120
Bottles recycled by Australian Plastics Recycling (post consumer)
240
Exported by Visy (exported)
360
Exported by Queensland collectors
100
Other Exports
~1000
Total PVC bottles recycled
360 (approx. 20% recovered bottles)
Source: Multiple industry interviews (2002)
* Nolan ITU Data

4.6.3 End-of-life PVC Pipe

It would appear that very little PVC pipe is recovered from the ground after use probably due to the absence of collection schemes and the fact that it is generally in a long-life application. Interestingly in country and rural areas new PVC pipes are laid alongside the end-of-life PVC pipes. However in city areas the old pipes are first removed before installing the new pipes. The proportion of PVC pipe that is buried thus varies with geographic location. PVC pipe that is recovered is almost entirely landfilled at present in Australia. Limited quantities have been recycled in recent trials. The environmental impact of in situ disposal is considered to be minor given that PVC pipe does not biodegrade.

4.6.4 End-of-life PVC Hose

Bunnings Hardware Stores have conducted a garden hose 'bring back' trial, but with limited success due to the low resulting collection volumes. Though PVC hose does not represent a major stream of post-consumer PVC, it is nonetheless a large application area for PVC recyclate. In fact, the single largest application area for PVC recyclate is industrial (e.g. industrial hose, pneumatic hose, fire hose) and domestic hosing (e.g. garden hose). PVC hose can contain up to 90% recycle-content. In such hoses the recycled PVC goes into the (black) core and a thin layer of virgin PVC is coextruded over the top. Eighty percent of the PVC recyclate that Cryogrind produce (some 2000 tpa) is used to make garden hose and industrial hose (Siganakis, 2002).

4.6.5 End-of-life PVC Automotive Applications

PVC typically comprises 5-10% of automotive shredder residues (ASR) - the light residual fraction after disassembly and milling of end-of-life vehicles. At present all ASR or 'flock' as it is commonly referred to is landfilled.