PVC pipemakers’ desire to keep their formulas proprietary has hindered scrap recycling.
Plastics producers have made several inroads into the building products sector in the past few decades, with makers of vinyl and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) having been effective on several fronts.
Residential siding, initially pioneered and dominated by aluminum, is almost entirely now in the hands of makers of vinyl siding. Likewise, makers of extruded aluminum window products have seen much of their residential market share taken away by vinyl window makers.
A 2012 analysis by the American Architectural Manufacturers Association and the Window and Door Manufacturers Association states, “In 1996, vinyl windows accounted for 36 percent of the entire residential window market. By 2012, vinyl window market share grew to 68 percent of the total residential window market.”
On the interior of buildings, producers of another metal—copper—have seen one of their major markets, copper water pipes, eroded as they are replaced with PVC pipes.
While demolition contractors and recyclers of construction and demolition (C&D) materials benefit from the relatively high value of copper and brass scrap when they encounter it, PVC piping yields no such payday.
Whereas a global market exists for the obsolete copper pipes and brass fixtures they harvest, the PVC pipe recycling market remains underdeveloped.
Copper has long been a material of choice for piping and tubing in homes, office buildings and commercial buildings. It is a metal that resists corrosion better than iron or steel and (historically) was more affordable than some of the metallic alternatives, such as galvanized steel.
A report on the home improvement website Builders Websource, www.builderswebsource.com, says, “For several decades copper tubing has been the mainstay and preferred method of water distribution inside residential structures, accounting for approximately 85 percent market share in new construction. When installed properly and when the water supply is nonacidic, copper plumbing has proven the test of time as a reliable and safe delivery vehicle for potable water.”
Starting in the 1960s and ’70s, plastic pipes made of either PVC, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or, initially, polybutylene (PB) gained traction among builders and plumbers.
PB was eventually the subject of lawsuits contending its makers touted exaggerated “lifetime” claims for pipes that often failed suddenly after a decade, and such pipes were pulled from the market in 1995.
PVC and CPVC (chlorinated polyvinyl chloride) have gained adherents and market share, however. According to manufacturers of these resins, they have proven to be affordable durable and biostatic (resistant to bacteria growth).
While plumbers and building owners may have benefitted from this rival to copper, the end-of-life scenario for PVC pipe has not been as beneficial for demolition contractors and recyclers.
One of the barriers to healthy end markets for PVC and CPVC pipe is that manufacturers are guarded with their patented formulas. Some have shown a willingness to use scrap that can be verified as their own in a recycling process, but manufacturers insist that blending different PVC or CPVC products is not an option.
A lack of outlets
Demolition contractors and mixed C&D recyclers see a steady amount of PVC piping, but they report that healthy, steady outlets for the material are few and far between.
“We primarily see rigid PVC drain piping and a smaller amount of the flexible PVC piping,” says Bill Keegan of Dem-Con Cos., Shakopee, Minnesota.
A better outcome
While finding recycling markets for plastic piping often can be a frustrating experience for demolition contractors and mixed construction and demolition (C&D) materials recyclers, the market for vinyl siding and windows seems to have improved in the new millennium.
On its website, www.vinylinfo.org, the Vinyl Institute, Alexandria, Virginia, has a list of finished products, a directory of recyclers and several case studies, many of which focus on recycling markets for vinyl windows, doors and siding.
The increased publicity for such recycling matches what C&D recyclers are experiencing in the market. James Bray of Bayshore Recycling, Keasbey, New Jersey, says his ability to recycle vinyl siding and fencing has greatly improved.
“An easier and just as abundant form of PVC [compared to piping] is siding and vinyl fencing,” Bray says. “These are relatively free of contaminants and can be blended together. Some recyclers also have added window and door profiles into the mix but the level of contamination (glass, steel and insulation) can make recovery cost prohibitive,” he adds.
Shermans Valley Recycling, Loysville, Pennsylvania, has invested heavily to process vinyl siding, fencing, windows and doors. Co-owners Sam Fisher and Elam Stoltzfus have located their business in a plant that formerly made vinyl fencing.
As detailed in the September-October 2012 edition of Construction & Demolition Recycling (in the article “Humble but Hungry”), Shermans Valley accepts loads from vinyl siding installers and from C&D recyclers.
Dem-Con runs a mixed C&D sorting plant and a single-stream material recovery facility (MRF). (See the article, “Moving Forward,” in the August 2014 issue of Recycling Today). However, the company has not put harvesting PVC pipes or tubes among its priorities. “We do not capture or collect any PVC piping, rigid or flexible, due to lack of markets for this material,” Keegan says. “All of our PVC currently goes to the landfill.”
Bill Turley, executive director of the Construction and Demolition Recycling Association (CDRA), Aurora, Illinois, says the experience of other members of the association may vary from Dem-Con’s, but success stories are not widespread.
Turley says one response he gets from members regarding why they don’t recycle PVC pipe is, “It isn’t worth much, and it is very difficult to bale in order to make shipping easier.” Some recyclers, he says, blend the material with other types of plastic to create mixed loads.
CDRA member James Bray of Bayshore Recycling, Keasbey, New Jersey, says the proprietary formulas used by pipe manufacturers remains a major hindrance. “The challenge to PVC recycling is in the composition of the material,” Bray says. “Pipe manufacturers will use [differing] combinations to create their feedstock for PVC piping. This makes collecting, processing and reusing extremely difficult.”
He says closed-loop recycling systems can work for pipemakers that use manufacturing cut-offs within their own plant or work with a recycling company that is collecting, packaging and shipping the material to another site.
In California, CDRA member Michael Gross of Zanker Materials Recovery, San Jose, California, says his company found one outlet, but that PVC destination was fleeting. “We shipped several loads of PVC to Oregon to be recycled back into PVC pipe, [but] the company is no longer in business,” Gross says. “The big problem was transportation, since it would take several hours to load a [truck with a moving floor] with pipe.”
A ray of hope?
Recycling of construction scrap and having an end-of-life recycling market for building materials are among the goals of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system overseen by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Washington.
A 2010 pilot credit program established by the USGBC targeted PVC and CPVC as materials that green builders should consider replacing, though the USGBC’s motive was more the presence of chlorine than it was the lack of recycling markets.
In the “potential strategies” section of the pilot credits program, the USGBC suggests “HDPE and fiberglass for conduit; and copper, steel, concrete, clay polypropylene and HDPE for piping.” Several of those suggestions would be welcomed by demolition contractors and C&D recyclers, who encounter the various materials at the end of the building’s life.
The website for the Vinyl Institute, Alexandria, Virginia, http://vinylinfo.org/recycling/product-list, lists manufacturers that use recycled vinyl in their products, though it is unclear whether they use PVC or CPVC piping.
Keegan of Dem-Con is keenly aware that Minnesota has no market, but he also talks to recyclers in other parts of the country and hears largely the same thing. “I am not aware of any markets for this material or of anyone else in our market space recycling these materials on a large scale,” Keegan says. “I think it is a market that could potentially be developed.”
On the Vinyl Institute Web page with links to media reports concerning vinyl recycling, stories on recycling of siding and windows predominate. However, one article provides information on Charlotte Pipe and Foundry Co. in Charlotte, North Carolina, which received NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) International certification in 2010 to manufacture PVC pipe that uses recycled material. “It is a co-extruded, solid-wall pipe that uses virgin material for the inner and outer skins of the pipe.”
The company’s RePVC product “uses 100-percent-recycled content as the center layer,” which makes up 30 percent of the weight of the pipe, the Vinyl Institute says.
Charlotte Pipe Director of Training and Product Support Brian Conner, however, says the company’s process for using scrap “is strictly controlled and single sourced as part of our guidelines in having an NSF-certified product.”
He says, “Plumbing products are closely scrutinized” to comply with the NSF standards, one reason Charlotte Pipe produces only a “small volume of RePVC products.”
For recyclers with PVC scrap, electrical conduit manufacturers may serve as a larger end market, Conner says, as they “could offer much more volume and less stringent industry compliance than we currently face.”
Ashland, Ohio-based Return Polymers (www.returnpolymers.com) accepts different forms of PVC scrap to manufacture electrical conduit. The company says it specializes in the “development, implementation and delivery of recycled PVC compound[s].” Its RP2008 product, which can be used in electrical conduit applications, is part of that mission.
Whatever end market can provide an outlet, recyclers with PVC pipe scrap will be ready to explore new viable options.
The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article updates one that appeared in the September/October 2014 edition of Construction & Demolition Recycling, a Recycling Today Media Group publication.