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PVC for packaging: how threatened is it?

PVC for Packaging: How Threatened Is It?

American packaging producers are keeping one eye turned toward Europe these days, measuring the growing public disapproval of PVC and wondering if the furor will eventually span the Atlantic. At issue are environmentalists' claims that incineration of PVC packaging in municipal waste releases pollutants such as hydrochloric acid gas, a potential precursor of acid rain; dioxin, a possible carcinogen; and heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. In past decades, European technology was responsible for the worldwide boom in blow molded PVC bottles. European advances in twinscrew extrusion revolutionized PVC compounding. And packaging of food and nonfood items in vinyl films began in Europe. But as the 1980s progressed and the pro-environment Green Party gained more political clout across the continent, PVC and all substances based on chlorine chemistry came under a barrage of negative attacks.

Currently, nine EEC nations either have proposed or enacted laws that will curtail vinyl's use in packaging both food and nonfood items. Some of these "Green" laws are as far reaching as the total elimination of PVC packaging, toys and single-use items by the end of the decade, proposed in both Austria and Denmark. The only legislation that has been passed in Europe is a measure enacted last August by the Swiss Federal Assembly banning the use of PVC bottles for beer, mineral water and soft drinks starting this November. In addition, Swedish food packagers last year voluntarily eliminated vinyl from all food containers.

Although no concrete legislative proposals have yet appeared in the U.S., industry insiders suggest some states may already be convinced they must treat vinyl disposal as a special problem. Rod Lowman, v.p. of governmental affairs for SPI's Council on Solid Waste Solutions in Washington, D.C., has been tracking European and American waste-disposal issues for the past few years and has seen the strength of the anti-vinyl lobby increasing. Now, he says, America could be the next target. "The situation in Europe is growing and many countries are considering some form of PVC legislation," Lowman says. "There's no state in this country yet where such a ban has been proposed, but it would not surprise me to see some of that showing up here sometime in the next few years."




Despite this concern, the general consensus among PVC resin producers and processors worldwide is that PVC will weather the storm and remain viable in packaging, although it could suffer a slight market decline.

John York, chief executive of European Vinyls Corp., a PVC resin producer based in Brussels, Belgium, recently told the British trade journal Plastics & Rubber Weekly, "The environment is having a modest effect on PVC markets, and we expect to see it take 0.5-1% off potential growth. Yet, we are still expecting growth at 1.5-3% annually [for PVC overall]."

In the U.S., a recent study by the Freedonia Group, a market research firm in Cleveland, predicts that domestic demand for PVC containers will increase 17.4% from 310 million lb in 1987 to 364 million lb by 1992. By the year 2000, Freedonia expects 26.9% further growth to 462 million lb of PVC containers. As for PVC packaging overall, Freedonia sees 3.7% annual growth from 1989 to 1994, from 842 million to 1.01 billion lb, just slightly lower than 4.2%/yr growth for PVC overall in that period. Both bottles and blister packs hold increasing opportunities, Freedonia says.

PVC producers and processors doubt that the average American consumer is concerned about PVC as an environmental hazard. "We've received thousands of write-ins about our product," says Joseph Nohren, v.p. of Innova Pure Water Inc., Clearwater, Fla., which packages its spring water in vinyl bottles. "I have yet to see one response where a consumer says he dislikes our product because it's packaged in a vinyl bottle."

Nohren, like many others, feels PVC packaging has a strong future. "I see vinyl expanding in the packaging market," says David K. Schoeneck, v.p. of Schoeneck Containers, Inc., New Berlin, Wis., blow molder of PVC bottles for a wide array of products from beverages to dog food. "I think in the near future, it will establish itself even more in rigid packages."

Yet some packagers may be a bit uncomfortable with the controversy over PVC. Johnson & Johnson Inc., which markets its baby shampoo in PVC bottles, refused to discuss this issue with Plastics Technology, offering no explanation for its silence.


"What has happened in Europe need not happen here," explains Roy Gottesman, executive director of the Vinyl Institute, Wayne, N.J. "The best approach is to develop information and make it available to the environmentalists as they are seeking it. We want to have a dialogue with them right from the start."

To achieve this, the Institute, which represents 17 domestic and two European producers of PVC resin and additives, has commissioned what Gottesman calls "a cradle-to-grave study" on vinyl to assess its health, environmental and energy impact. The study, being performed by Chem Systems, Tarrytown, N.Y., is expected to be completed in May. "I think we've got firm facts to back up our case," Gottesman said. "I believe this study will put things in the proper perspective."

As for heavy-metal contamination, "There's a misconception out there about cadmium and lead," says James Mullen, director of packaging films for American Mirrex Corp., a PVC calendering firm in New Castle, Del. "The truth is that packaging film manufacturers have never used cadmium or lead stabilizers in their products."

Dioxin fears might well be calmed by results of tests conducted at a municipal incinerator by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority in 1987. The tests showed that artificially increasing the PVC content of municipal solid waste fourfold produced no increase in generation of dioxin (see PT, Sept. '87, p. 120).

Although PVC constitutes only 5% of consumer plastics waste in the U.S., or less than 0.5% of municipal solid waste, environmentalists and industry insiders alike are concerned with studies in Europe and the U.S. showing that PVC produces 30-50% of the hydrochloric acid (HCI) generated in waste incinerators. In some newly built, high-tech incinerators, enough of this gaseous acid is trapped in filters and removed by flue-gas scrubbing devices to render the emissions virtually harmless. However, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimate, only 20-25% of the approximately 250 municipal-waste incinerators nationwide are currently equipped with the scrubbers. New, more stringent emissions restrictions developed late last year are targeted at gas and acid removal and are likely to force more incinerator operators to install devices to trap HCI.

But the uncertainty of what will spew from an improperly equipped incinerator remains a major factor behind the growth of the anti-PVC sentiment abroad and a driving force behind the grassroots effort here. This, industry insiders say, could dramatically change public perception toward PVC and, following the European experience, could result in legislation harmful to the industry.


American Mirrex chairman and CEO David Kollock is among a number of vinyl industry representatives who feel that manufacturers of PVC and other plastics have hurt their own case by not effectively touting the materials' recyclability. "I think the paper, glass and aluminium industries have done a much better job than the plastics industry in getting the recycling message

out," he says. Presumably, if PVC is recycled instead of incinerated, the environmental objections against it become moot.

Many processors, resin producers and packagers say the widespread perception that vinyl is not recyclable has helped fuel the anti-PVC fire. "The issue is that PVC can be recycled but is not being recycled" on a post-consumer basis to any great extent, says William F. Carroll, Jr., director of commercial development for the Polymers and Plastics Div. of Occidental Chemical Corp., Berwyn, Pa. "PVC is definitely recyclable. The problem is that too much of it is still finding its way into landfills." OxyChem, Schoeneck, American Mirrex, BFGoodrich Co., Cleveland, and Georgia Gulf Corp., Plaquemine, La., are among a number of companies vigorously pursuing PVC recycling programs to meet the growing demand for reusable material.

According to a University of Toledo study published earlier this year, demand for recycled PVC for reuse in products such as siding and multilayer coextruded pipe is more than twice the amount of virgin vinyl processed into bottles each year. Experts say this study shows the importance of developing an efficient vinyl recycling network.

OxyChem estimates that it collected about 500,000 1b of PVC for recycling in 1990 and experts to collect 2.5 million 1b this year. The recovery strategy for the company will be to toll the waste material through existing regional recycling facilities, Carroll says. In conjunction with two smaller vinyl producers, Occidental is looking at ways to reprocess and compound recycled PVC for blow molding, bottlegrade applications.

American Mirrex recently introduced two rigid PVC packaging films for blisters and trays, containing a minimum of 30% post-industrial recycle. And Schoeneck has been working with BFGoodrich and has run some successful experiments with both pigmented and clear bottles from recycle

"Many of our customers are concerned with the recycling issue," says David Schoeneck. "They want to be involved with a material that will be recycled in the future. We're assuring them that this is the case. The versatility of vinyl, coupled with its recyclability, makes it one heck of a packaging material."

Those who have ventured into PVC recycling agree on the critical need for an automatic sorting device to remove vinyl from other plastics, thus guaranteeing the purity of the regrind. Initial steps toward the development of such devices were taken over the past year by the Center for Plastics Recycling Research (CPRR), Piscataway, N.J., and National Recovery Technologies, Inc. (NRT), Nashville, Tenn. Both methods were developed with funding support from the Vinyl Institute (see PT, May '90, p. 31). The CPRR sortation system uses x-ray fluorescence to detect chlorine atoms in vinyl bottles. These x-ray sensors then activate air jets that kick the vinyl containers out of the stream of bottles on the recycling line and into an area away from the non-PVC containers.

The cooperative effort between the Vinyl Institute and NRT resulted in development of a system that uses electromagnetic technology to separate PVC post-consumer waste from other discarded polymers. Said to be almost 99% accurate in tests with mixed PVC and PET bottles, the system can scan 10 bottles/sec, a rate that equates to 10 million 1b/yr, NRT says. Reportedly, the effectiveness of the system is not affected by the bottles' orientation, labels, caps or base cups; and a vinyl container sandwiched between two non-vinyl containers can reportedly be detected and removed.

The first prototype of this system will be installed at XL Disposal Corp. in Crestwood, Ill., early this year. An identical system is eventually scheduled to be installed in a closed-loop recycling center operated by Reprise Ltd. in England.

PHOTO : Manufacturers of vinyl bottles for everything from shampoo to spring water, as well as makers and users of packaging films, could face increased environmental and regulatory pressure if the anti-PVC sentiment brewing in Europe catches on here.
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Title Annotation:polyvinyl chloride's environmental aspect
Author:Monks, Richard
Publication:Plastics Technology
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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Next Article:Outlook 1991: clean air rules may affect processors.

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