Hydro Polymers: Searching for a More Sustainable PVC

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Over the last five years, the European PVC industry has been forced to reassess the environmental impact of its products in the face of continuing pressure from environmental groups, governments and end users. Hydro Polymers, one of two PVC manufacturers in the UK, is forging ahead of its competitors through a partnership with sustainability consultancy The Natural Step. The company is launching a new brand of products made from recycled PVC, is working to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, and is aiming to reduce its use of lead stabilisers well ahead of the timetable set by the European PVC industry.

The PVC industry has been struggling for many years to ward off the accusation that it is inherently environmentally damaging.

Greenpeace has been chipping away at PVC's image for well over a decade. It has had some limited success in northern Europe, with a number of UK retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and B&Q seeking to reduce their use of the polymer in packaging or products. The damage to the PVC industry has been mostly symbolic, with its main markets in the building trade - pipes, profiles, sheeting and cables - remaining largely unaffected.

A sector under pressure
Greenpeace has had more success in Scandinavia, and especially in Sweden, where manufacturers such as Electrolux have designed 'PVC-free' products. The Swedish government, with its long interest in restricting hazardous substances, was also receptive and helped persuade the European Commission to produce a Green Paper on PVC waste.

That paper, issued in 2000, highlighted the use of heavy metal stabilisers and phthalate plasticisers, the low level of recycling and the generation of hazardous waste from incineration as PVC's main problems. A draft PVC strategy promised to appear soon afterwards is still awaited.

Shortly before the Green Paper's publication, the European PVC industry launched a voluntary programme, dubbed 'Vinyl 2010', in an attempt to stave off regulation. Revised two years later, the programme calls for the phase-out of lead stabilisers by 2015 and sets recycling targets for the 'collectable available' portion of pipes, window frames, flooring and roofing membranes.

PVC manufacturers have tended to defend the polymer's reputation by publicising the use of PVC in 'good' products, such as blood bags, and selectively promoting life-cycle studies in which PVC did not come out badly in comparison with competing materials.

Taking a different tack
Hydro Polymers has developed a different strategy. By tackling PVC's environmental problems and broadening the debate to other materials, it hopes to build a credible, positive perception of a sector working hard to reduce its environmental impacts.

Hydro Polymers is the petrochemicals division of Norway's largest company, Norsk Hydro. It has production facilities in Norway and Sweden as well as Newton Aycliffe in County Durham, and claims a 10% share of the 5.5 million tonnes per year European PVC market. The UK market is split fairly evenly three ways between Hydro Polymers, EVC and imports.

Hydro's business performance is generally improving, although last year earnings fell by 12% and sales by 20%. It hopes that a new £85 million membrane cell chlor-alkali facility under construction at its Rafnes site in Norway will make it more competitive - and could well be miffed that Ineos is receiving a £50 million subsidy from the UK Government to install a similar plant at Runcorn.

All of Hydro Polymers' three main production sites - Newton Aycliffe, Rafnes and Stenungsund in Sweden - are certified to the international environmental management standard ISO14001 and the EU eco-management and auditing scheme (EMAS).

Newton Aycliffe's main plant produces suspended PVC resin by polymerising vinyl chloride monomer shipped from Norway to Teesside. The site also operates batch processes which compound the resin into special grades by mixing in additives such as stabilisers, pigments and plasticisers.

The site is one of two in the UK that have so far agreed to take part in REMAS - a three-year EU-funded study launched earlier this year to identify whether environmental management systems can be relied upon to deliver improved environmental performance.

Hydro Polymer's ultimate hope is that its environmental strategy could help its brands of PVC resin and compounded product win market share from other materials, or from other brands of PVC such as those produced by UK rival EVC.

The company's UK environment manager, Jason Leadbitter, argues that the challenges facing PVC are not too dissimilar to those faced by competing materials. He believes that it is 'only a question of time' before alternatives are assessed with the same rigour, and 'would like to think that this might well lead to a better understanding of the importance of PVC in its role to the well-being of mankind and to the environment.'

Some light could be shed on this issue by a study for the European Commission which will assess existing life-cycle analyses of PVC and competing materials. The work is due to be finished by the end of the year.

Broadening the analysis could also help PVC. The polymer's durability and resistance to degradation 'are essential components for long-term product applications,' says Mr Leadbitter, while its 'ability to be recycled in controlled loops back into similar applications is fundamental to the principles of sustainability' - though that promise is still a long way from being realised (see below).

Shifting towards sustainability
Hydro Polymers has grappled with the concept of sustainable development by enlisting the help of Swedish consultancy The Natural Step. Indeed, information on the partnership dominates the homepage of Hydro Polymers' corporate and UK websites.

The relationship's roots go back to 1997, when a small group of UK retailers threatened to stop using PVC in their products and packaging. Under the chairmanship of Forum for the Future's director Jonathon Porritt, and with EVC and Hydro Polymers joining the retailers, the so-called PVC co-ordination group produced an 'environmental charter' for UK PVC manufacture two years later.

The charter committed the two manufacturers to several goals, including an attempt to define what 'sustainable PVC' might look like. This was done by judging PVC's environmental performance against the basic principles of The Natural Step.

This analysis identified five key challenges for the industry which, if addressed proactively, would mark a significant shift towards sustainability - while also aiming to deliver business benefits:

  • The industry should commit itself to becoming carbon neutral in 25-30 years.
  • It should make a long-term commitment to a closed-loop system of PVC waste management.
  • Releases of persistent organic compounds, such as dioxins, from the whole life cycle must not result in systematic increases in background concentrations.
  • Any additives that can accumulate in nature or whose toxicity is uncertain should be phased out over the long term.
  • Awareness of sustainable development should be increased across the industry, and all stakeholders should be involved.

Since then, the momentum seems to have been lost at EVC, now part of the Ineos chemicals group. EVC's environment manager Roger Mottram says that the company's efforts are focused on the Vinyl 2010 initiative which it regards as 'moving in the direction that The Natural Step says we should move in.' The initiative is currently chaired by EVC's commercial director David Thompson.

However, in 2001 Hydro Polymers launched a sustainable development programme for PVC, based on The Natural Step's principles, which is more challenging than Vinyl 2010.

Two years on, the company has benchmarked its inputs and outputs and set itself key performance indicators. Parent company Norsk Hydro has allocated some £4.25 million to sustainability projects across the division for 2003 and 2004, over and above its capital and maintenance budgets.

Carbon neutrality
On the face of it, Hydro's aim to strive towards carbon neutrality within 25-30 years is a huge challenge for such an energy-intensive business.

Some service sector companies, such as the Co-operative Bank and B&Q, claim that their services are almost carbon neutral - mainly through purchases of electricity derived from renewable sources, or by offsetting emissions using carbon sequestration programmes such as tree planting. So far, though, few manufacturing companies can make the same claim.

However, Hydro starts with some advantages. Firstly, the proportion of hydrocarbons in PVC is roughly half that in other polymers because PVC also has a high chlorine content. And secondly, unlike Ineos' chlorine plant at Runcorn, which accounts for 1% of the UK's entire electricity consumption, its chlorine plants in Norway benefit from carbon-free hydro-electric power.

Even so, the company has a long way to go to reach its goal. It installed two combined heat and power plants at Newton Aycliffe between 1994 and 2000 - cutting annual CO2 emissions from 110,000 to 50,000 tonnes while PVC production almost doubled. Today, the site generates all its own steam and two-thirds of its electricity.

The company estimates that some 640kg of carbon dioxide is generated for every tonne of PVC produced, from the manufacture of vinyl chloride monomer to delivery of the PVC resin to the customer. Its target is to reduce this by 50kg by 2005, cutting annual CO2 emissions by 20,000 tonnes.

It would be interesting to know how these figures compare with those for EVC and other PVC manufacturers. However, Hydro's use of hydroelectricity means that its total carbon emissions, including those from chlorine manufacture, are likely to be relatively low.

A key measure for Hydro to achieve its target will be installing a process known as 'adiabatic volume' at one of the hydrocarbon crackers at Rafnes, which should greatly improve process efficiency. The same technology will be added to the site's two other crackers over the next two years, each at a cost of £800,000.

A further project is the construction of a new heat exchanger at the Stenungsund works. This is due to be completed by the end of this year and will reduce CO2 emissions by some 1,500 tonnes.

Another option is increased use of renewable energy. The company has discounted the use of photovoltaic cells. But in the UK it has commissioned a study into the feasibility of installing 1.5 MW of wind turbine capacity - joining a growing band of manufacturers looking at this option.

Jason Leadbitter admits that the project would be largely symbolic - it would cost around £1 million and deliver an annual CO2 reduction of just 3,000 tonnes. Another hurdle could be obtaining planning permission, as the Aycliffe site is near housing.

In addition, the company has a raft of smaller projects under way to improve energy efficiency. These include:

  • Installing variable speed drives on motors.
  • Recycling water in the polymerisation process.
  • Adding heat recovery processes to wastewater stripping columns.
  • Modifying CHP plants to allow them to continue running while their filters are changed.
  • Replacing normal light bulbs with energy-efficient bulbs.
  • In the longer term, it may be possible to use the hydrogen generated by the chlorine manufacturing and gas cracking processes in fuel cell technology, particularly where purer forms of hydrogen are generated.

Getting recycling off the ground
Another tough challenge facing the industry is to raise the recycling rate for post-consumer material from its current level of 2-3%.

Most effort is being expended on the continent, spurred by Germany's proposal to ban plastics from landfill from 2005. The industry is looking at the development of chemical recycling technologies - where the polymer is chemically broken down into by-products such as hydrochloric acid and sodium chloride.

At present, very little post-consumer PVC is recycled in the UK either chemically or mechanically, although Anglian Windows claims to have recycled a tiny number of window frames. Next year, WRAP, the Government's Waste and Resources Action Programme, will complete a study looking at potential collection systems and markets for PVC waste from the construction and automotive industries.

However, Hydro Polymers is poised to launch the UK's first brand of recycled PVC compound, known as EcoVin. Made from post-industrial scrap which will initially be bought back from customers, the product will be produced at Aycliffe using a refurbished compounding unit that was due to be scrapped. The project has a six-year pay-back period rather than the usual 2-3 years.

The company expects the unit to produce 3-5,000 tonnes in its first year. The main applications are expected to be building products such as cable conduits, fencing and window profiles covered with a 'skin' of virgin PVC to hide any aesthetic imperfections.

If the product is successful, Hydro Polymers plans to bring two or three more units on stream at Aycliffe, possibly by retrofitting more old units. It may also seek to use post-consumer material, such as windows, if this can be collected in significant volumes, says Mr Leadbitter.

The company is exploring other large-scale options for PVC recovery. It is looking for waste management companies in Europe which might be interested in collecting large volumes of PVC and other plastics to feed a gasification plant to produce syngas. Such plants are already in commercial operation in Japan, Mr Leadbitter says.

If a licence can be obtained for one of the existing technologies to convert syngas into methanol, Hydro Polymers could dust off its own patent for a process that converts methanol into olefins - the major building blocks of the petrochemical industry.

However, a massive volume of plastics would have to be collected to turn this concept into reality. To compete with existing olefins plants, which typically produce at least 500,000 tonnes per year, around one million tonnes of plastic waste feedstock would be required.

The proportion of PVC in the feedstock could be at least 10%, says Mr Leadbitter. Hydrochloric acid produced in the gasification process could be used to make fresh PVC.

PVC additives
Lead stabilisers were voluntarily phased out in Sweden last year and will also disappear from the Danish market by the end of 2003. However, the rest of Europe seems happy to accept the industry's voluntary commitment to reduce their use by 15% by 2005, 50% by 2010 and 100% by 2015, even though calcium-zinc and organic-based alternatives are readily available from major stabiliser producers such as Akcros, Baerlocher and Chemson.

Hydro has had to move slowly to replace lead stabilisers outside the Scandinavian market even though it began searching for alternatives some six years ago. The lack of EU regulation, coupled with the willingness of its competitors to delay the phase out of lead, have undoubtedly held it back.

The company is committed to finding alternatives to lead in all applications, although it stresses that lead should continue to be used in the short to medium term. By next year, 80% of its cables and foams, its two main PVC product ranges, will be lead-free - putting it well ahead of the industry's timetable. It is also offering lead-free windows, but has found it hard to produce competitively priced products.

Hydro has invested £100,000 in a partnership with German stabiliser manufacturer Chemson to study the environmental impacts of alternative stabilisers. Part of the study will examine how many times PVC containing different stabilisers can be recycled, and whether PVC containing alternatives such as calcium-zinc and organic-based systems can be recycled with PVC containing lead or organotin stabilisers.

Hydro has also started research into alternatives to phthalate plasticisers, which are used to make PVC flexible. Concern about phthalates has grown since 1996 when they were found in samples of baby formula milk at levels thought to be possibly high enough to trigger oestrogenic effects.

One area of concern has been their use in intravenous bags, used to store blood or plasma. Three years ago, shareholder pressure forced leading US medical products company Baxter International to announce that it would phase out PVC bags in five years within the EU.

Hydro has just started a three-year project with Strathclyde University to assess ways of minimising potential risks associated with the use of the phthalate plasticiser DEHP in medical devices, particularly blood bags. The study will seek ways of preventing the plasticiser from migrating into the bag's contents, and will also examine the pros and cons of alternative plasticisers.

Toxic pollutants
As well as the new membrane cell chlorine plant at Rafnes, Hydro intends to replace an asbestos-diaphragm chlorine plant at the same site, and a mercury cell unit at Stenungsund by 2010.

At its corporate research centre in Heroya, Norway, the company is exploring ways of reducing dioxin formation during the manufacture of chlorine and vinyl chloride monomer. Intriguingly, it has found that the rubber gasket seals in plant hardware contribute to formation of the pollutants.

Hydro is also building a unit at Stenungsund to recover the hydrochloric acid from the site's vinyl chloride monomer plant. Currently this is discharged into the adjacent fjord.

Raising awareness
Ensuring that all businesses in the PVC supply chain understand and support sustainable development is crucial in supporting its efforts to improve PVC's track record, Hydro argues. Moreover, it hopes that this will help to generate demand for 'greener' PVC products such as EcoVin or lead-free formulations - leading to pressure to overcome barriers such as product standards and specifications and helping to overcome short-term price increases.

A key initiative in the UK involving Hydro, EVC and The Natural Step will be the launch next year of a 'PVC stakeholder council for sustainability', possibly chaired, like the PVC co-ordination group, by Jonathon Porritt.

The council would includes representatives of the various parts of the PVC supply chain, such as additives producers, product manufacturers, retailers and other end users. Its remit would be to promote sustainable practices in the industry, rather than PVC itself - though the dissemination of information about manufacturers' environmental programmes would clearly help to bolster the polymer's image.

Hydro is hoping that it has found a successful strategy to kill off calls for a PVC phase-out. Such a strategy would be bolstered if it achieved full backing from the other major European PVC producers - EVC, Atofina and Solvin.

There are, however, rich ironies in the role played by Greenpeace. The group has led calls for a PVC phase-out - but has also been instrumental in getting the PVC industry to improve its performance. 'Greenpeace has done us a lot of good by focusing on us,' says Jason Leadbitter. 'Without them we wouldn't be doing anything like this.'

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