TNO Institute of Strategy, Technology and Policy

Chemical Recycling of Plastics Waste (PVC and other resins)

- By: , , ,

Courtesy of TNO Institute of Strategy, Technology and Policy


For several years, debate has raged about the plastic PVC. Industry and environmentalists contend with each other virtually around the world. The environmentalists pursue a ban, industry aims to improve its environmental performance and believes that from an overall viewpoint there is no reason for such far-reaching measures against their material. In this context, the material pops up on the political agenda on a regular basis in a number of EU member states. Issues that are often the subject of debate include emissions from EDC/VCM/PVC production, the use of certain stabilisers and plasticisers (such as phthalates), and PVC waste management. Such debates have led in several EU member states to (in)formal measures against PVC. Such measures on the national level can lead to barriers to trade. As a result, an EU policy on such PVC-related issues is desirable. A policy at EU level prevents that differences in national policies hamper a proper functioning of the internal market, and can ensure an equal, appropriate level of environmental protection in member states.

In this context, the Commission aims to define a policy with regard to the subject of end-of-life PVC products. For this purpose, DG III and DG XI have commissioned various studies focussing on several aspects of PVC waste management. This concerns studies into:

1. Specific costs of incineration of PVC in municipal solid waste incinerators (MSWIs), which is being performed by Bertin, France;
2. Costs and benefits of diverting PVC from incineration, which is being performed by AEA, UK;
3. Landfill of PVC waste, which is being performed by a consortium led by Argus, Germany;
4. Mechanical recycling of PVC waste, which is being performed by a consortium lead by Prognos, Switzerland;
5. Chemical recycling of PVC.

The last study, on chemical recycling of PVC, is being carried out by TNO with DG III as the primary client. The overall aim of the project is to analyse the role that chemical recycling may have in a future European system for PVC waste management. Since both rather pure PVC waste and mixed plastic waste (MPW) containing PVC may in principle be treated by chemical recycling, this study cannot concentrate on PVC alone. Chemical recycling of PVC will therefore be treated within the broader context of chemical recycling of plastic waste. More specifically, the Terms of Reference (ToR) for the project asked us to address the following elements:

1. making an inventory of all current research programmes, pilot projects and commercial plants involved in the chemical recycling of plastics;
2. evaluating the technical issues related to the chemical recycling of plastics;
3. evaluating the possible future scenarios in the field of chemical recycling, including a forecast of probable industrial investments (member state by member state);
4. describing the effects on the environment and the risks, analysing costs and benefits, and making a comparative assessment of the environmental, economical and technical aspects of the various technologies for chemical recycling, mechanical recycling, and incineration with energy recovery for PVC and mixed plastics containing PVC.

The specific approach of how we dealt with these elements is discussed in the specific chapters related to these tasks. In general, the inventory of research programmes was based on a literature review and expert inquiry. For the most feasible chemical recycling options, an in-depth inquiry of the consortium backing such initiatives was performed. As for the scenarios, for PVC waste arising we could rely on the extensive modelling work performed by the European union of Plastics Converters (EuPC). On the basis of e.g. historical PVC consumption data and product-life times, theoretical PVC-waste arising was calculated and checked against practical data. This work has resulted in the most comprehensive and reliable estimates of PVC waste data available at EU level to date. In order to ensure a comparable basis of the projects, it is most likely that their data will be used as well in the studies of Prognos (mechanical recycling) and AEA (incineration). These parallel studies would result in dedicated information on mechanical recycling and incineration (with or without energy recovery). In order to avoid duplication of work, we intended to use these results wherever possible. Furthermore, several other major studies performed for e.g. APME were used. Cost data, particularly for collection, were based on a literature search. These data were sufficient to provide the basis for a comparative evaluation of risks, technical aspects, and costs.

Obviously, this project has clear links to the other four projects on PVC. The overall picture with regard to PVC waste management, and the possible place of chemical recycling in it, ideally needs to be made when the technical parts of all projects are ready. For instance, a comparison of environmental effects and costs between mechanical recycling and chemical recycling can best be done if detailed information on mechanical recycling is available. Yet, since this is the subject of a specific project, it was not effective for TNO to obtain detailed data themselves in order to be able to make a good comparison in this report. Hence, we restricted ourselves on areas covered by other projects. In this context, it was rather unfortunate that the results of the parallel studies became available to TNO only in a rather late stadium.

For this report, the following structure has been chosen:

Chapter 2 reviews the most viable initiatives with regard to chemical recycling, and also summarises the main competing technologies: incineration and landfill. A comprehensive gross list of initiatives on chemical recycling that have been taken in the last 5 years is attached as Appendix D to this report;
Chapter 3 reviews the sources of various types of PVC waste and the collection structures that have to be in place before chemical treatment is possible, as well as the associated costs;
Chapter 4 compares chemical recycling with alternative technologies for PVC waste or PVC-containing plastic waste;
Chapter 5 gives scenarios for chemical recycling. There is a discussion of the amounts of plastics available for chemical recycling, given the influence of competing technologies, the capacity created concerning chemical recycling plants, their location, leading to a description of the future of chemical recycling of PVC;
Chapter 6 ends with conclusions, and serves also as an executive summary.
The arguments and conclusions published in the report reflect the author’s position and the Commission does not necessarily endorse every opinion and conclusion as stated in this report.

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