Message In A Bottle: Lessons for The Green Building Movement about the Myth of PVC Recycling

Bill Walsh - June 29, 2004

A new report by the Grassroots Recycling Network (GRRN)[1], Message In A Bottle: The Myth of PVC Recycling,[2] demonstrates that "PVC recycling does not exist, cannot exist, and is not wanted by the plastics recycling industry," according to GRRN Project Coordinator, Toral Jha.

Although the report focuses on bottle and container markets because they are "the most mature, economically viable market for post consumer plastics,"[3] it holds important lessons for the green building community. Among these are insights gleaned from much-heralded PVC recycling efforts by carpet makers Interface and Collins and Aikman.

Acknowledging that these programs are the high-water mark of PVC recycling in the building industry, the report characterizes them as exceptions that prove the general rule: "PVC carpet recycling by Interface and Collins and Aikman represent unique investments by two niche companies . . . But their practices so far, have still fallen short of true closed-loop PVC recycling and do not provide examples that can be transferred to other sectors."[4] PVC is fatally handicapped by its varied formulations, and its toxic additives and byproducts. These make it impossible to economically collect, transport, sort and remanufacture PVC. They may make PVC recycling a source of toxic releases, a concern yet to be investigated due to the paucity of PVC recycling operations.

The report also reminds us to evaluate all vinyl industry claims skeptically, at best. Citing industry advertisements and fact sheets circa 1989-1991[5], the report documents the birth of the public relations strategy now trained on the green building movement. According to the report: "[T]he vinyl industry first issued position papers that represented that PVC could be recycled. Then it commissioned life cycle analyses and technical studies that suggested it could be recycled. . . When those efforts failed to deflect critical attention. . . [they] established a price support program . . . ." This doubled (emphasis added) the PVC recycling rate to two percent[6] until the program ended in 1996[7].

A decade later the industry has little to show for itself but a string of failures and more empty rhetoric. One searches in vain for documentation of post-consumer recycling rates on the Vinyl Institute website. One does find a prominent reference to Center for Plastics Recycling and Research at Rutgers University[8], which, according to a 1996 Plastics News article, closed due to "industry indifference."[9] The site does list a few manufacturers of so-called recycled PVC products, but most are obvious down-cycling or post-industrial (as opposed to post-consumer) operations.[10] When Greenpeace tested allegedly recycled PVC window frames in Europe, the group reported that "None of the seven tested samples were really recycled window frames."[11]

Each year tons of PVC is manufactured into building materials, which now vie for LEED credits and other "green" designations. PVC isn't, can't be and won't be recycled in any meaningful way, ever. Every PVC product we use -- from shampoo bottles to "green" roofs -- is a precursor to toxic waste that our kids will inherit.

Get the message?


Footnotes

[1] Grassroots Recycling Network http://www.grrn.org

[2] Anderson, Peter. Message in a Bottle: The Myth of PVC Recycling http://www.grrn.org/assets/pdfs/pvc/PVCBottleRecyclingReport06162004.pdf

[5] Message in a Bottle, page 20, footnote 25, http://www.grrn.org/assets/pdfs/pvc/PVCBottleRecyclingReport06162004.pdf

[9] Message in a Bottle, page 21, footnote 31, http://www.grrn.org/assets/pdfs/pvc/PVCBottleRecyclingReport06162004.pdf

[11] Greenpeace, PVC Waste and Recycling: Solving a Problem or Selling a Poison? http://archive.greenpeace.org/toxics/html/content/pvc3.html


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