The challenging but rewarding case of recycling rigid PVC

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A group within the North Sea Resources Roundabout is working on developing safe solutions for the recycling of rigid PVC with legacy substances as a basis for crossborder circular economy trade opportunities. This article explains the regulatory challenges facing the recycling of rigid PVC with legacy components and makes suggestions for a way forward.

This article is based on the article in the UK CIWM Journal page 47-49 ( in November 2017

The Netherlands has taken the initiative for an international public private collaboration: The North Sea Resources Roundabout (NSRR)[1], It is a novel approach that aims to align regulatory interpretation and to create a safer, larger cross-border recycling market. This initiative was created, in early 2016, by six ministers from four North Sea territories: the UK, France, The Netherlands and Flanders. Policymakers, the Inspectorate and industry representatives are now working together, around specific cases, to identify and eliminate barriers related to cross-border trade, transportation and the use of secondary resources.

One of four of these ongoing cases concerns rigid PVC waste, collected by Renewi in Flanders, recycled to industry standards by Van Werven in the Netherlands, and used by Wavin as the inner layer of threelayer pipes in the UK. The presence of a small percentage of legacy substances – the stabilisers cadmium and lead – now labelled as substances of very high concern (SVHC) in the PVC waste pose regulatory challenges that risk an end to the recycling practice.

We see the NSRR’s case as a “pressure cooker for analysis and (possibly for) solutions”. Industry and governments are investigating whether there is a sensible, risk-based approach that provides continuity for PVC recycling and also prevents less favourable disposal routes. The lessons learned might even be applied to similar flows with legacy substances. This article gives an overview of the challenges identified and the possible solutions that are being discussed.


Recycling of PVC, the world’s third-most produced plastic polymer, is a well-established practice. Rigid PVC is used, amongst other areas, in construction for pipe and profile applications, some of which have a lifespan of 50-100 years. Recycling of plastics, such as PVC, has been an accepted cross-border practise for several decades. Rigid PVC Recycling has great environmental benefit and significant growth potential. In Europe, we recycle 500,000 tonnes per annum, prevent 1.25m tonnes of CO2 emissions (the equivalent of taking 750,000 cars off the road) and provide jobs for 2,000 people. In doing so, we close resource loops, become less dependent on raw materials and contribute towards a circular economy.

In the past, cadmium and lead compounds were used as stabilisers which, as it later turned out, could bring environmental and human health risks with them. The PVC industry took responsibility and phased out the cadmium (2007) and lead stabilisers (2015) from the production of new PVC. But dark regulatory clouds lurk above recycling flows that contain legacy substances, and this includes plastics ….and therefore rigid PVC. There are barriers related to a possible hazardous waste status; uncertainty about a waste or resource status; and REACH compliance. If not pro-actively countered, it could signal the end of its recycling. So, zooming out… where do the PVC challenges come from? When we are dealing with SVHCs, the regulatory policy is to simply get these substances out of the market.

By 2020, the number of hazardous labelled substances on the REACH list will more than double, to 400. These legacy components are, however, still present in PVC waste. It seems easy, in the context of striving for a toxic-free Europe, to label waste with legacy components (like PVC-stabilisers) as hazardous waste. PVC-compounders are, from brand and resource perspectives, increasingly willing to process recyclate into their products – but not hazardous waste. What is the fate of these streams if we do not recycle them anymore? They would be landfilled or incinerated, according to life cycle analyses, with a much greater negative impact on the environment [2] So we face a dilemma… on the one hand, we want to get hazardous substances out of the cycle; and on the other, supported by increasing recycling targets, we want to accelerate towards a circular economy.


When determining risks for exposure and setting limit values, you can choose two approaches. REACH, the legislation governing chemicals, adopts a hazard-based approach, based on the specific properties of the substances. Under waste regulations, there is a more pragmatic risk-based approach. In an interview for the Dutch Waste Management Association in 2017, Cees Luttikhuizen of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment said: “Dutch environmental policy chooses a risk-based approach when it comes to imposing restrictions on the use of substances. We do not only consider whether the properties pose a risk, but also if the application is acceptable. This risk-based approach would also help to determine if recycling of legacy components is justified”. The industry is keen to look realistically at the risks of PVC recycling – for decades it has been an accepted common practice. The EU-branch association, VinylPlus, recently independently investigated the storage, leaching and health risks to employees related to PVC recycling, and found that the risks were, by and large, “acceptable”.[3] People in general are not likely to have great difficulties in picking up PVC recyclate by hand.

Renewi’s Eric Pero added: “Today it is impossible for waste managers to know in detail what is in the waste flows, as the waste is not disposed of with a notice. Detecting legacy substances that occur in very small concentrations in a selective number of parts of a product is technically impossible or would render recycling unprofitable.” So, even if we could detect legacy components, what should we do with this waste?

Ton van der Giessen of plastic recycler Van Werven, said: “Does this not ask for a safe, but more pragmatic, approach than big danger signs or recycling bans without better alternatives for recycling? Given the cross-border nature of the PVC market, a cross-border solution would have to be the preference.”A “no regret” scenario, in any case, seems to continue to explore technology developments that can eliminate legacy components in the near future. The fruitful exchange within the cross-border NSRR PVC working group has led to shared insights into the regulatory challenges. Some can be resolved within the working group…others cannot! These will need commitment from branches and regulators alike.


Will waste with legacy substances get a hazardous waste status? Based on the concentrations of individual chemical substances in the waste and their CLP hazard classification, we can divide the waste as hazardous or non-hazardous, by applying the calculation rules laid down in the Waste Framework Directive.[4] The presence of hazardous waste in excess of a certain concentration (the hazard approach) provides a hazardous waste label with a much heavier regime for storage, transport, transfer and treatment permits than non-hazardous waste. Of course, this also entails additional costs for waste managers and producers… and ultimately the consumer. Industry could argue that the limit values do not correspond to actual risks in practice, and that the label does not substantially enhance risk management.

Richard van Delden of Wavin explained: “…a hazardous waste label would mean the end for the use of recyclate in our pipes. In case of doubt, no purchase: customers/consumers can see the warning on the products, but do not know the nuance.”

The NSSR does not replace the national or EU regulatory process, but the insights required can have positive spin-offs for the ongoing regulatory process. In search of solutions, the European Commission launched a consultation (which ended in July 2017) on the interface between the chemicals, product and waste legislation. The Netherlands Ministry has responded, separately, and reading between the lines it seems that the Netherlands advocates a proper balance between the recycling of secondary resources and the prevention of further spreading of harmful substances.[5] A very interesting proposal in its response relates to the possible threat of a hazardous waste status. The Netherlands proposes, in conjunction with market practice, to create an exception for polymers (fully polymerised substances) from the Waste Framework Directive (WFD) Annex III. Concerns about additives can be regulated in REACH, and in product regulations (under the The Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances Directive), for example, by limiting the number of applications to those categories with an acceptable risk.


According to the WFD, recyclate that is brought to the market must be assessed for its compliance with the conditions that it sets for a waste material to become nonwaste, ie, to attain the end of waste (EoW) status. In practice, PVC recyclate has not formally been subject to such an assessment, either at national or European level.[6] Nevertheless, after use as a secondary resource in products, it comes back on the market and becomes subject not to the waste regulation, but to the REACH legislation. This situation has grown in practice and is applied throughout Europe for plastics in general. However, the enforcement of waste legislation will eventually put this practice under pressure, hence an EoW status that complies with the four criteria set out in Article 6.1 of the WFD would provide both client and consumer clarity, as well as giving a quality impulse to the market. It should (ultimately) be a European status so as to do justice to the cross-border nature of the waste stream. Within the umbrella of the North Sea Resources Roundabout, it is investigated whether a Dutch EoW assessment for PVC recyclate applied to the inner layer of pipes, now in the process of being finalised, could also lead to a comparable status in the participating countries, creating a much larger equivalent playing field and market. REACH, the legislation governing chemicals, sets requirements for substances to be placed on the market. What happens if you bring recyclate on the market with legacy substances that are now forbidden? For cadmium (in the past used as stabiliser in PVC) in recyclate, the regulators have set up REACH exemptions (time-limited, subject to review), linked to certain concentrations levels and even limited to just a few product applications. For example, rigid PVC recyclate (without plasticisers) in concentrations of cadmium, below a certain percentage, can be used in the inner layer of threelayer pipes – but not in children’s toys. For lead (in the past used as stabiliser in PVC), the EU is now setting up similar restrictions. The concentrations determined by this risk approach, however, differ from concentrations for the same substance, set by a hazard approach, when it comes to conferring a hazardous waste status. This conditioned REACH exemption will become obsolete if a hazardous waste status is granted at a previous waste stage when the PVC was discarded of, which made recycling as good as impossible.


It is the wish of policy-makers that legacy substances that are getting a “new life” in products will be traceable. This would keep open the possibility of removing them with future technology. We need to look carefully at the business reality, and not exaggerate traceability requirements for products that include recyclate. Today, we are importing many products from outside Europe in which these substances may also be included. The control regime here is at a completely different (ie, lower) level than we are used to under the waste regime. If, for decades, we can expect to come across legacy components in the waste, we must be careful not to apply unrealistically difficult traceability requirements for products that use recyclate. Could a barcode logo that indicates that the product meets end of waste requirements – and is REACH compliant – be a solution? Both the NSRR, as a demonstration area for Europe, and the Dutch contribution to the consultation, are constructive steps from government and industry in a cross-border setting that acknowledge business realities. The challenges for PVC can be extrapolated to many flows with legacy substances. It is a common challenge for recyclers, producers and policymakers; addressing that challenge can give recycling a qualitative boost. To be able to scale-up and find solutions in the UK and the rest of Europe is a challenge, but the industry is doing well to gain support from colleagues in the other countries and through its own government agencies.

But can the UK, post-Brexit, continue to participate in similar cross-border alignments to enjoy trade opportunities and address trade barriers? It strikes me that a cooperation could still occur where individual member states have room to act through subsidiarity. So, for example, the UK and Netherlands/other signatories could still cooperate by setting common national EoW criteria for PVC. Defra’s Simon Johnson concluded:“We liked the idea of working on areas of common concern with countries and organisations that saw themselves as front-runners on wanting to keep more secondary resources within circulation. This was in line with our policy of wanting to move towards a more circular economy and improve resource efficiency. That remains our policy and the NSRR can continue to play a part in helping us achieve that aim.”

For now, however, the dark cloud remains above the recycling sector.



[2]. IVAM Environmental impact analysis PVC for priority streams in Dutch lifecycle-based waste policy.

[3]. Final report risk assessment of lead migration during storage of PVC waste (Arche Consulting); Migration of Substances from recycled Polyvinylchloride (Fabes); Health Risk of Occupational Lead (Pb) Exposure in Conventional PVC Recycling and Converting Operations (Dr Fruijtier-Pölloth).

[4]. Classification, Labelling and Packaging regulations for classification and labelling of substances and mixtures.

[5]. Response to the commission’s stakeholder consultation on addressing the interface between chemicals, product and waste legislation – views of the Netherlands.

[6]. An EoW status is request is being assessed in the Netherlands.

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