ITALY: Environmentalists dispute claims for new PVC recycling plant

The world's first plant for the mechanical recycling of PVC is being built in Ferrera, Italy. The plant will selectively dissolve used PVC electric cable and flexible packages. The opening is scheduled for mid 2001 and the annual output capacity will be 8,500 tons of recycled PVC.

One obstacle in recycling composite materials such as PVC is to separate various intimately-linked materials. However PVC is soluble in certain solvents. Belgian-based chemical and pharmaceutical group Solvay claim that the company’s ‘Vinyloop’ technology makes it possible to separate the PVC material from other components by dissolving it. The process uses biodegradable solvents in a closed circuit and promises to regenerate PVC of a quality equivalent to the virgin product.

Jean-Pierre Pleska, Managing Director of Solvay’s Strategic Business Unit Vinyls and Chairman of the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers (ECVM). “I am convinced that this achievement will position PVC as one of the important players in sustainable development, notably in terms of recycling.”

Companies involved in the European PVC industry chain – PVC manufacturers, producers of plasticisers, producers of additives and plastics converters – recently signed a voluntary commitment to meet specific sustainable development objectives (see related story).

However Greenpeace’s EU Toxics Adviser was less than impressed by the plant. Axel Springhofen told edie, “PVC can only be recycled in marginal amounts. Currently 97% of this toxic waste is not recycled. The voluntary recycling programme has been established for public relations purposes: the companies will pay to avoid legislation. The capacity of the new plant is very low. If it meets its target of 8,500 tons, this is less than 0.35% of current EU waste, which is 3.5 million tons and will increase in the next 10 years to 4.7 million tons.”

Solvay are working with four companies on the project – Solvin Italia, Adriaplast, Fitt, Tecnometal and Vulcaflex – in a joint venture with a combined investment of 8.5 million euros.

PVC is used for packaging, furnishings and window frames and pipes. Raw PVC has a high chlorine content and a high levels of hazardous additives. Like most plastics it does not biodegrade, and the waste is particularly difficult to manage. The three options for waste disposal are landfill burial, incineration or recycling (see related story).

Recycling is particularly problematic because of high separation and collection costs, loss of material quality after recycling, the low market price of PVC recyclate compared to virgin PVC and the limited potential of recyclate in the existing PVC market.

Incineration is not a sustainable option for dealing with waste. Less energy is generated from burning the plastic than was used to make it, and incineration results in emissions of CO2 and toxic substances. Large amounts of solid wastes are produced as slag, ash, filter residues and neutralisation salt residues. Part of this needs to be disposed of as hazardous waste.

Landfilling does not represent a viable option for PVC disposal because additives, such as phthalates and heavy metals can migrate into the environment. Where landfill fires occur, PVC can contribute to the formation of dioxin.

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