Could plastic waste become a new source of raw material for the future?
A recently published EU green paper describes the issues faced by most EU countries over landfill mountains and discusses potential solutions to this growing problem. Could plastic waste really become a new source of raw material for the future? The plastic pipe industry has some very clear views on the opportunities and challenges it faces.
The total amount of plastic waste which finds its way to landfill varies significantly from one country to another but across the whole of the EU the figures are staggering. It is estimated that in 2008 the EU generated 25 million tonnes.
A large proportion of this comes from packaging however the plastic pipes industry is already playing its part in reducing landfill by recycling plastic pipes, fittings and profiles into new products under a voluntary commitment it entered into more than ten years ago. Under the latest version of this voluntary commitment called “Vinylplus” the plastic pipes industry has undertaken to recycle 120,000 tonnes a year by 2020 and is well on the way to achieving this target with a forecast for this year of around 60,000 tonnes.
However this does present some challenges. The pipes industry takes very seriously the need to use more recyclate but, at the same time, it must ensure that product quality and life expectancy is maintained. Increasingly for products such as sewer pipes all the indications are that modern plastic systems will serve our communities for at least one hundred years. If this was jeopardised by the use of products made from poor quality recycled material which would require earlier replacement it would clearly reduce the overall environment benefits such systems can provide.
The answer for the moment is to ensure that waste is correctly segregated so that only suitable material is recycled into long life products such as pipes. However plastic pipe manufacturing technology is advancing all the time and the potential to use more plastic waste in high quality pipes will increase over the years.
Another challenge faced by the plastics industry is the legacy of older material which contains additives which are now being considered by the EU as potentially hazardous such as the small quantities of lead previously used in PVC. Again, in dealing with this issue, technology has come to the rescue. Modern pipe manufacturing processes allow such material to be encapsulated in a three layer pipe wall construction between outer and inner skins of new material thus “locking in” the recyclate. This innovation means we can avoid this material being considered unsuitable for recycling and consigned to landfill or incineration. It is true that this will require some changes to be made to existing product standards and other regulations such as REACh but in our view the environmental benefits it will provide fully justify this.
As for the Green Paper, the Commission is expected to release initial feedback on the response to the public consultation later this year.