Author Argus

Will Collins, Global Editor for Argus Recycled Polymers, talks to Charlotte Röber, Managing Director of VinylPlus and Director of ECVM, and Jason Leadbitter, Chairman of IOM3’s PVC 2024 Conference, about the European PVC market.   

  • Current challenges the European PVC industry is facing 
  • Growth opportunities for advanced recycled markets on the PVC side 
  • Key drivers the industry needs to stay close to for the future 

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Will: Hi, you're listening to our latest edition of Chemical Conversations. 

This week, we're focusing on the European PVC market, and specifically the progress the industry is making, and the challenges it faces on its route to improved sustainability. I'm joined in this discussion by Jason Leadbitter and Charlotte Rober. 

Jason has 35 years' experience in sustainability and compliance in the core vinyl sector, with PVC producer Innovia, and will be the chairman of the upcoming PVC 2024 conference, organized by the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining. PVC 2024 will take place in Edinburgh, Scotland from the 15th to 18th of April, and registration details can be found on the IOM3 website.  

Charlotte is the Director of the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers and the Managing Director of VinylPlus, a European PVC industry commitment to sustainable development, which was founded over 20 years ago to move the industry towards sustainability, with a focus on areas such as minimizing the environmental impact to production, promoting the responsible use of additives, and the continuous development of collection and recycling schemes for PVC waste across Europe. Charlotte has a background in regulatory affairs, coming from the window profile and building materials side of the PVC industry, and thank you both for joining us. 

PVC resin is long-established as the go-to polymer for construction, automotive, and related applications, but in recent years, the European industry has undoubtedly been through some of its most difficult challenges yet. Demand has slowed amid the downturn of construction output linked to slower economic growth and rising inflation and interest rates, which have discouraged investment in large building projects. And, like other areas of the plastics industry, it also continues to tackle the challenge of maintaining progress towards becoming more sustainable. 

Throwing to Charlotte first, what would you say are the main challenges that the European industry is currently facing, maybe in comparison to other key global PVC markets? 

Charlotte: I think we have PVC-specific, and wider non-PVC problems here in Europe. But thinking of the PVC-specific ones, I believe the material has had an image problem for as long as I can think, and rightly so for a part of the time in the past. So, there were, over time, significant improvements here in Europe. If you look at the infamous ECHA report that was just published, it confirmed that PVC production is safe in Europe these days, and this has also been thanks to these improvements that have been made over 20 years. But getting this message across really is a challenge, because we are living here in the PVC value chain in Europe, in a very scientific community talking a lot to itself and to industry experts, and it's not necessarily well connected to the public policy debate we've been witnessing. 

I'm inclined to say that in Europe, we really have more of a big communication issue rather than a sustainability issue today. And you might say, why is that? I believe it's because the concerned industries traditionally are really quiet and invisible, coming back to the communication problem, and I guarantee you that you will find more people on the street that can explain to you what blockchain is than people who can tell you how and where the core chemicals, materials, and products that sustain our industry and our society are produced, and how they function. 

And another challenge is we want a transformation, but I believe we really miss the social and economic dimension to this, which now leads to the fact that now we have a competitiveness issue and a lack of social buy-in in Europe. We are not as close to net-zero as we really could be and should be. And I do agree here that industry has been sleeping for many years. I think we cannot play a blame game here. But it certainly hasn't been sleeping since 2019, and the big Green Deal, which is a great initiative, and probably really suffering severe engine failure right now, and we must get this going again with society, and with industry, and not against it. 

Will: Jason, do you have anything to add on that? 

Jason: You’re certainly right that PVC is very much seen and is the construction polymer. So, in terms of its growth, etc., it's very much linked to how well, or how not so well the construction industry is going, because it lends itself for its longevity, durability, which are key elements of what PVC products can offer to society, whether it's profiles, pipes, construction-type applications. And unfortunately, we've been singled out, you might say, rightly or wrongly, over quite a few years, largely for the chlorine component regarding PVC, where historically, that has presented challenges. And as Charlotte rightly said, initially, that was very much focused on the manufacturing of PVC, but particularly the upstream raw materials, and more recently, you might say also the additives used in PVC, because it really is highly tolerant to a wide range of additives. And that's positive, because it gives PVC absolute diversity from, if you like, blood bags to window profiles, and everything in between.  

But some of those additives, whilst they were extremely technically efficient, weren't always the best from an environmental point of view, and the industry, in fairness, has really addressed this proactively over quite some years. For example, things like lead stabilizers, which historically were used in PVC, have now been completely phased out and replaced with much more, if you like, sustainable additives. That said, we've still got the legacy of such additives in PVC products, which are still used in society, because it's back to the longevity of the products, you know? A window frame could be 35, 40-years-plus, or indeed, a PVC pipe. 

Therefore, what do we do with those PVC products at end of life is also a challenge whereby we think it's ideal to bring those back and reuse them in new applications, etc., but in this toxic-free environment which we're now also facing, that's raised questions about what happens with these legacy additives etc. And these are quite crunchy and challenging issues that the industry's had to address. 

Will: One of the measures that the politicians and the policy makers have taken with regards to addressing the legacy additives issue is to bring in the upcoming legislation with regards to recycling, that will sort of create more closed-loop recycling processes, sort of very much within the pipe industry, within the window profile industry. That is seen as, to some extent, a challenge that is going to require some reorganization of what's currently going on in the recycling market. Is that something which you see as a positive step to dealing with these issues? Or do you see that it could also create challenges to maintaining the growth rate that we've seen in PVC recycling over the 2010 to sort of 2020 decade? 

Charlotte: I'd say it's both. Of course, it is challenging from one view, because we must be clear that not all PVC applications can be recycled back into the same applications. And some might say this is then down-cycling, a term nowhere actually clearly defined, but very often used. You also can approach it from the other side, and say every time recycled PVC is being used, it replaces virgin PVC, and thereby saves CO2. However, I do understand where this closed loop idea is coming from, because it does put in charge the producer of the first product, and it does give a big push for design for recycling because whenever you do design your product, you need to think about do I want and can I get the material out of this application back again into my own application? 

So as a motivator, I don't think it's a wrong approach. It just must not lead to the point that applications that cannot today be recycled in a closed loop are not recycled at all, because that would just be detrimental to the environment. 

Jason: To also build on that, there's a lot of work now focused on new developments from a recycling point of view. So, in many ways, we've picked the low-hanging fruits here from a recycled PVC perspective, because the big-ticket items, such as window profiles, where Charlotte was very much heading up that sector about the European PVC profile manufacturers. We've seen window profiles systematically increase in recycled volumes, largely because it was predominantly all via mechanical recycling, which by and large is the easiest route for recycling, or seems to be the easiest route, from a recycling point of view. That said, we have quite a few applications within the PVC industry where we have what you would call more difficult recycled PVC products because they could be, for example, composite materials, or more challenging to get a hold of from a collection and sorting perspective, etc.  

And this is where we believe there is a real challenge in terms of how we not only get those products back, collect them and sort them, etc., but also how we ensure the technologies are there to recycle those products at end of life. And I believe this is an area that will's certainly in rapid growth from an R&D point of view. But make no mistake, the mechanical recycling route is largely the preferred choice because that's the easiest route, but we must also address these other technologies, which frankly, will be technologies now only in their infancy. But we will see, I'm sure, quite rapid growth in these technologies going forward in the future.  

Will: How quickly do you see that advanced recycling market growing in the PVC side? And do you expect that we are in any way close to sort of the first sort of small commercial-scale plants that will be doing advanced recycling for the difficult to recycle PVC products? 

Jason: I think we're only a few years away from that. When we started with our voluntary commitments, the first one was Vinyl 2010. The resin producers put quite a lot of their eggs in one basket to look at chemical recycling back in the early days of 2000s. But it was a lot more challenging, and what became apparent was that mechanical recycling was by far the easiest route, because PVC really lends itself, from a mechanical recycling point of view. The physical properties of PVC, after mechanical recycling, are just as good as what they would be for virgin PVC, and we know that can be repeated several times without any significant loss in PVC. So hence the reason why you've seen a kind of disparity between PVC from a chemical point of view, versus polyolefins, etc. 

The only key challenge there for us is the chlorine component in the PVC resin itself, insofar as if you are using thermal treatment processes there, we need to be mindful that that chlorine needs to be stripped out, whether it's a pyrolysis or gasification process. So, the PVC industry could still go down the route of pyrolysis and gasification, and developments are ongoing in both of those areas, but we must have almost a pretreatment there to look at the chlorine extraction as well. 

That said, the industry is perhaps one of the leading areas for solvent treatment of PVC. And in the early days, for example, we at INEOS had a process called VinyLoop, which actually used a solvent-based process for PVC treatment, and we see a lot more interest in those areas, particularly for some applications, such as flooring, for example, with flexible PVC, where that type of treatment will be really readily available in the years to come. 

So, I think we're only talking about a few years. My view is that within the PVC industry, and indeed within VinylPlus 2030, which is the industry's voluntary commitment, we have some clear commitments in there by the European PVC industry, but we also shouldn't underestimate what the resin manufacturers are doing in this space. 

Will: The experience from the polyolefin and PET side of the business is that developing these processes is complex and expensive. Where does the investment need to come from? And what drivers can be put in place to encourage investment, and to encourage potentially downstream customers to pay the extra that would be needed to then encourage people to buy this material, and to use recycled PVC that comes from advanced recycling? 

Charlotte: I think overall there is a much greater acceptance already, and that's the first win. There is a much greater acceptance for recycling in the market, which really has strongly developed over the past five to ten years, and that was one of the main blocking elements previously. Of course, the willingness to pay more for this is limited. We need to have support in design for recycling regulations, guidelines and standards. We need to have support for collection schemes across Europe, because this is by far the hardest part to get hold of the waste once it reaches the end of life. We need to also have the acceptance by the regulator that we continue to use these materials in new products, which of course must be the most sustainable, and the safest option. 

Jason: If we look at collection and sorting, and the area of packaging, you could argue that local authorities, etc., have done a tremendous job in support of society at large there, in terms of putting systems in place for household collection, etc. Up to now, the PVC industry has kind of been on its own in many ways, doing as much as this collection and sorting as it can for construction products. But I'm quite sure in the years to come, when there's more focus on the circular economy and ensuring that we take all the steps to minimize environmental impacts, collection and sorting of municipal waste from construction areas, for example. Looking at the buy-in from a social context, such as green public procurement, we do see certain targets that should be fulfilled to ensure that there's a minimum threshold of recycled content in future products. That would also push and drive in the green public procurement arena more, if you like, sustainable preferred options for the future. 

: I would like to draw attention to the fact that our sustainability program will now undergo a mid-term review. That's what we will be doing throughout this year, and throughout next year. I will also be in Edinburgh and am really looking forward to having as many bilateral exchanges as possible to hear how people see sustainable value chains, sustainable PVC and all the like. So, if you are in Edinburgh, we can have a discussion on the sustainability of PVC. 

Jason: If I could give a plug for the conference itself, we're really excited about it. It's the first time in over seven years that we're having a face-to-face conference. It's a new location also at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, and we’ve got over 18 exhibitors and 9 sponsors, and we’re very excited to announce our high caliber speakers. We have the lead negotiator, Mr. Schally, from the European Commission, who is going to be talking about the United Nations Global Plastics Treaty, and as well as Charlotte. We also have Virginia Janssens, from Plastics Europe. The first day will be very much focused on the markets overview, including industry presentations from around the globe, from North, South America, South Africa and China. 

And perhaps importantly, many of the issues that we've just been discussing, we really get down to the technical nitty-gritty on days two and three, where we've got three parallel sessions, covering nine major themes, from resin production, additives, manufacturing strategy, future directions, circular economy, net-zero, regulatory and environmental masses, and plastisols and flexible PVC, as well as a huge amount on innovation and markets, and new products, etc. So, it's going to be a good gig. We're looking forward to it.  

Will: Great, thank you both. Thanks very much to everybody for listening.  

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