PVC: stepping out

The longest of journeys begins (IEM, November 1998) described the science-based tools of The Natural Step (TNS) framework and how they help organisations get to grips with sustainable development. TNS UK has recently published an evaluation of the sustainable development implications of that contentious plastic, PVC. Here, Dr Mark Everard, director of science with TNS, fits the material around the model.

PVC is contentious, and its profile with the public, the media and government has increased in recent years. The PVC industry has responded, and has made substantial progress including increasing eco-efficiency, development of the Environmental Charter for UK PVC Manufacturers and the Eco-efficiency Code of Practice for the Manufacture of PVC, and life cycle analyses on applications of PVC. However, sustainable development is about more than eco-efficiency and entails facing up to the unavoidable challenges of a fast-changing world where pressures on natural resources, the demands of a growing population, and the accumulation of wastes will inevitably impose restrictions upon how businesses operate.

It also means facing up to the fact that the plastic itself, not just its manufacture, gives many cause for concern. There is evidence of reactive decision-making outside of the PVC industry, founded on a tacit assumption that alternative materials are automatically more sustainable. This is far from a safe assumption, and serves to minimise none of the perceived risks, nor contribute to increasing sustainability. Further bold, strategic and decisive action is required by the PVC industry.

System conditions

The PVC Co-ordination Group, comprising representatives of major UK retailers and the two UK PVC manufacturers, supported research using The Natural Step framework to explore the sustainability issues of the PVC life-cycle. This research was integrated with a 2020 Vision Seminar – a collaborative venture between TNS and the Environment Agency – to build consensus within a group of invited experts about what would be necessary for PVC to be part of a sustainable future.

The present state of sustainability of the PVC life cycle, including end-of-life PVC products, was assessed using the four System Conditions of the TNS framework. A number of issues were highlighted in this evaluation:

  • System Condition 1: Substances from the Earth’s crust must not systematically increase in nature. Issues addressed: hydrocarbon feedstocks; heavy metals; fillers; energy usage (including manufacture, transport, etc).
  • System Condition 2: Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in nature. Issues addressed: PVC products; chlorine; dioxins; furans and other organochlorine compounds; VCM (vinyl chloride monomer) and EDC (ethylene dichloride); refrigerants and fire fighting chemicals; plasticisers and stabilisers.
  • System Condition 3: The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically diminished. Issues addressed: habitat loss or damage from the production, refining and transport of raw materials; land take from manufacturing plants; transport of PVC and intermediates; landfill sites; water use; and mining of stabilisers and fillers.
  • System Condition 4: We must be fair and efficient with respect to meeting human needs. Issues addressed: responsibilities to employees, communities, and other stakeholders; social justice; procurement policies; equitable shares of risks and benefits; globally uniform standards; community involvement; and contribution to people’s needs.

Not surprisingly, the PVC life cycle currently breaches the System Conditions of TNS in a number of significant ways. We must remember that PVC is far from the only material in common usage today that is not yet fully sustainable. Nevertheless, identified sustainability gaps for PVC are substantial and raise issues requiring urgent attention.

The five challenges

Amongst the outcomes from this sustainability evaluation is a set of five key challenges, setting out what it would take for PVC to become truly sustainable across its entire life cycle. These challenges are:

  • the industry should commit itself long-term to becoming carbon-neutral;
  • the industry should commit itself long-term to a closed-loop system of PVC waste management;
  • the industry should commit itself long-term to ensuring that releases of persistent organic compounds from the whole life-cycle do not result in systematic increases in concentration in nature;
  • the industry should review the use of all additives consistent with attaining full sustainability, and especially commit to phasing out long-term substances that can accumulate in nature or where there is reasonable doubt regarding toxic effects; and
  • the industry should commit to the raising of awareness about sustainable development across the industry, and the inclusion of all participants in its achievement.

Participants from the UK PVC industry recognised the magnitude of these challenges, but accepted that they are ultimately unavoidable and therefore provide an agenda for action.

Linear resource use – mine-use-dispose – throughout society gives rise to many pollution, resource depletion, exploitation and other contemporary sustainability problems, running as it does counter to nature’s sustainable cyclic processes in which there is no net waste. A major part of the achievement of sustainability will be the realisation of cyclic resource use patterns across society, and the release into nature only of substances that can be broken down at rates that can be reintegrated by natural processes.

Facilitate recyclability

Recycling of PVC is possible through physical, chemical and feedstock recovery. It is also possible to recycle PVC into products of not significantly lesser quality, to reformulate PVC to facilitate recyclability, and to automate the sorting of PVC from waste streams. A number of recycling loops are operational across Europe. However, whilst some elements of the necessary infrastructure are in place, in practice only three per cent of the PVC in the UK is currently recycled post-use. This tiny proportion will only grow with local, national and international incentives, and through strong leadership by the PVC industry itself. The industry recognises this, and has already made a voluntary commitment to increase the recycling of PVC products. These short-term commitments, if delivered as promised, will go some way towards the long-term challenge. Of course, the PVC industry cannot achieve the end-goal of a sustainable PVC life-cycle in isolation, but needs to become sustainable within a sustainable society. However, it needs to offer leadership, including the engagement of necessary partners in society, other sectors of industry and government, NGOs, retailers and investors. Closed loop manufacture is an ideal – remote for PVC, but also probably for many other materials in use by society – but is also ultimately potentially sustainable.

There exist too clear business incentives. PVC has many long-life applications (including pipes, cables, and other building applications), and so the increasing amount of PVC products that may be returned for recycling in coming years represent a substantial business opportunity.

A matter of survival

Sustainable development is a matter of survival for the PVC industry, as indeed it is for those concerned with all other materials. Commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, controls on packaging waste, and public concerns about PVC in incinerators indicate increasing constraints on society’s “licence to operate” for the plastic.

The Natural Step framework uniquely enables “backcasting” from a conceptual model of a sustainable future, helping identify the long-term challenges and an agenda for action that is not dictated by the ephemera of today’s economics and “hot issues”. For the PVC industry, this offers a clear if challenging path through the present minefield. As Jason Leadbitter, environmental affairs manager for Hydro Polymers, puts it: “This TNS evaluation offers a long, secure future for the PVC industry, though this ultimately depends upon us openly and honestly committing to sustainable development. The study will also help inform the way people think about the materials they use, enhance the quality of public debate about PVC, and frame sustainable development as a strategic challenge and business opportunity. We hope it will avert reactive, piecemeal, and ultimately unsustainable decisions.”

Sustainable scrutiny

Roger Mottram, environmental affairs manager for EVC International, adds: “PVC industry participants in the TNS study accept the need to address the five challenges, together with the retailers, regulators, NGOs, construction sector and other companies represented. We want to work closely with TNS to examine each of the challenges in more detail, and to reach consensus about strategic solutions to put these challenges into practice.”

In a fully sustainable future, PVC may or may not have a place. However, the PVC industry is to be commended for engaging in an objective sustainability evaluation of this type, and for committing to publication of the outcomes which present them with substantive challenges.

The PVC life-cycle can only become sustainable within a sustainable society, and that will be a long road. In any event, all of the materials that we use in society must be judged on the “level playing field” of sustainability considerations across their full life cycles. The manufacturers of other plastics, and of many of the materials used unquestioningly day-to-day by society, may now begin to wonder how they would stack up if examined so publicly under the microscope of a sustainability analysis.

PVC: An Evaluation Using The Natural Step Framework is available from The Natural Step office in the UK at a cost of £15.

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