The taming of vinyl - the rise of rPVC

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2015

At the turn of the millennium, PVC recycling infrastructure was non-existent and fear was growing about the toxicity of plasticisers. The industry has come a long way since then, as James Perkins recently found out on a study tour in Italy. 

When the London Olympic Games Authority approved the use of PVC in its stadiums, it was a big win for an industry that just 12 years earlier had been shut out of the construction effort for the Sydney Games. PVC was out of favour when Sydney was being organised – it wasn’t being recycled and evidence had emerged that low molecular weight phthalate plasticisers may be hazardous to human health.

The old saying ‘don’t get bitter, get better’ is appropriate to describe the European industry’s reaction. It developed the Vinyl2010 project, which aimed to recycle 200,000 tonnes of PVC per year by 2010. It achieved that and organisers of the London Olympic Games used 140,000m2 of PVC in the construction of its stadiums, after it was found to satisfy the strict environmental guidelines.

The programme has morphed into VinylPlus, which has set an updated target to recycle 800,000 tonnes of PVC each year by 2020, phase out the use of lead stabilisers and reduce energy use associated with PVC production. Arjen Sevenster, Manager of Technical and Environmental Affairs at the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers, says, ‘We are reasonably on track to achieve this challenging target.’ Europe recycled 440,000 tonnes of the plastic in 2013.

VinyLoop, a PVC recycling plant in Ferrara, Italy, has spent more than a decade perfecting its recycling process and was in a position to treat the roof of the London Olympic Stadium.

Paolo Groppi, CEO and General Manager at VinyLoop, told me on the tour of his plant that, ‘The 2012 Olympics did not want to use PVC, but VinyLoop convinced them that the material had the required sustainability credentials’.

The technology has been developed, now communication and cooperation must be fostered to ensure the feedstock gets to the recycling plants, the recycled PVC is used and the final product can be verified as recycled. ‘Once we have the network, the technology and the buyer, then we have the complete recycling supply chain,’ said Groppi. ‘We need to bring recyclers and converters together, to get the numbers and ensure traceability of waste, so we can prove the percentage of recycled material.’

Plant Manager Francesco Tarantino is the engineering brain behind the facility. It hasn’t been an easy task to build this system. PVC is often reinforced by fibre, and there is an enormous variation in the ingredients used in different products. There are about 100 plasticisers in active use, and then there are a number of different types of resins, converters and additives included to tailor the final properties. It was only four years ago that Tarantino was able to devise a system to separate fibres from reinforced PVC.

The plant processes about 10,000t of scrap a year, mostly cable and tarpaulin waste. The fibre from reinforced PVC is sorted and sold, then the PVC continues through the process, where it is further broken down. The final product comes in a black granulated form (the composition of which can differ depending on feedstock) and usually needs to be mixed with virgin PVC for the final product. The r-PVC is mainly used for garden hoses, tarpaulins, geomembranes, mats, plates and shoe soles.

The environmental advantages of using recycled product are significant. One square metre of pond foil with 75% r-PVC from VinyLoop uses 46% less water and 24% less energy, and results in 40% fewer CO2 emissions compared with the conventional route. A garden hose made with 50% r-PVC uses 24% less CO2, 23% less energy and 50% less water.

The goal for the VinyLoop is to license its technology and build replicas of the plant across the world. As Tarantino said, ‘It is possible to rebuild this plant, it is the plant of the future.’

The plasticiser problem

The controversy over plasticisers has eased, but the industry is still in the process of managing the risk. The EU has classified low molecular weight plasticisers (6 or less carbon atoms in its chemical backbone) as Category 1B Reproductive agents and its REACH body has them on its candidate list, which means that they will be phased out by February 2015 - except for special cases where companies have applied to continue their use. High molecular weight plasticisers are ok to use, as are numerous non-phthalate alternatives that are in production. There are six million tonnes of plasticiser produced each year globally, and Europe produces one million tonnes, with 85% of those plasticisers phthalates. The low molecular weight phthalate, DEHP, which is being phased out in Europe still makes up 50% of the world market. ‘That is mainly driven by Asia,’ ECPI Manager Stephane Content told me. DEHP has six carbon atoms in its backbone, putting it just inside the classification, and a number of companies have applied to REACH to continue its use in special cases.

Fine Italian (synthetic) leather

Italian leather has enjoyed an impressive reputation for centuries, so I wasn’t sure whether to be surprised that Italian PVC manufacturer Vulcaflex SpA, at Cotignola, is one of the world leaders in producing the synthetic variety.

It seems ironic, but the product is living up to the Italian reputation for quality and in many ways outperforms the real leather it replaces. Vulcaflex has 430 employees and expects to turn over €130m in 2016 (60% from auto, 18% from fashion and 22% from packaging), up from €80 million in 2010. In the past few years the company has seen solid growth serving the automotive industry and revenue from this sector is expected to be €95m in 2016, from €35m in 2010.

In addition to the many rigid vinyl components of a vehicle’s interior, such as in the dashboard, many higher-end vehicles are making seat covers out of a hybrid of real and synthetic leather. 

The side panels of the seats are real leather, while the centre panel, which takes the brunt of the passenger’s weight, is PVC.

Producing this fabric, that will have to sit alongside real leather in the finished product, is a demanding challenge.

Germana Pezzi, R&D Director, showed me around the company’s facilities. On top of all the traditional stretching, tearing and abrasion tests you would expect to find at a company like this, there was also an emissions testing device, which ensures the fillers in the PVC aren’t causing car windows to fog up. The company also has its own spectrophotometer, to ensure it gets colours absolutely right. After all the analysis, it comes down to a human feel and touch tester, who has the power to send the product right back to the factory if it is not up to standard. ‘We lose many months from that,’ said Pezzi. It is for this reason that the finishing is important – Vulcaflex has 300 different embossing rollers and invests heavily in its finishing lacquers.

What was clear to me after visiting Vulcaflex and VinyLoop was that PVC does have a future, something that was in serious doubt only 15 years ago and that is good news, because it is tough, versatile and important modern material.

James Perkins travelled to Italy to visit Vulcaflex SpA and VinyLoop as a guest of ECPI.