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PVC industry sees looming clash between chemicals law and recycling

Some European Union nations already prohibit lead content in polyvinyl chloride pipes, widely used in urban water and wastewater systems, and home plumbing. Efforts are under way to include some lead compounds as substances of high concern in the EU’s REACH chemicals regulation.

The EU’s main manufacturers of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, pipes have voluntarily agreed to eliminate the use of lead as a stabiliser in the manufacturing process by 2015. Some companies could achieve the goal earlier, carrying through pledges first made in 2000 and reiterated at the Rio+20 sustainable development conference last June.

Yet the European industry fears that proposals to expand the list of harmful substances under REACH could harm another sustainability pledge made by the industry – to gradually replace virgin materials with material recycled from old PVC pipes.

“This would be, in my mind, a disaster,” Roel van’t Veer of the European Plastic Pipes and Fittings Association, or TEPPFA, said of proposals by a few EU national governments and environmental groups to restrict recycled materials that contain lead or other chemicals and metals with potentially harmful impact of human health or the ecology.

“The chemical directive was intended, logically, for the chemicals industry,” van’t Veer told EurActiv. “What it has not taken into account are the effects on waste and waste recycling.”

The pipeline industry is not alone in expressing such concerns. Other industries fear REACH could affect their efforts to reuse end-of life goods, and European Commission officials have acknowledged the potential for such conflicts.

EU national representatives are scheduled to discuss expanding the REACH chemicals directive to include 21 lead compounds when they meet next week at the European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki. The compounds include those used as PVC stabilisers, but also in batteries, crystal, ceramics, rubber products and fuel additives.

Metal stabilisers are used in the manufacturing process to strengthen PVC during the production and moulding process, and in window frames and other products to prevent them from losing their lustre when exposed to sunlight.

Rio sustainability commitments

TEPPFA members have pledged to phase out lead stabilisers and gradually boost recycling as part of the commitments made by the European PVC industry. TEPPFA says it recycled 4,000 tonnes in 2001 and nearly 60,000 tonnes last year.

The European PVC industry agreed at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio to reduce its resource footprint by reclaiming 800,000 tonnes of PVC per year by 2020 – compared to the 255,000 the industry achieved in 2010. The VinylPlus project also commits the industry to phase out the use of lead by 2015, and to establish an industry label certifying PVC products as sustainable.

The voluntary commitment comes in the absence of EU regulations on lead stabilisers in PVC pipes despite a history of health concerns over the use of lead, also known by its chemical symbol of Pb.

High levels of lead stabilisers in PVC pipes raised health concerns in the 1970s and ‘80s as the durable, nearly leak-proof piping flourished as a replacement for metal and wood pipes, while homeowners turned to the plastic piping as a cheaper alternative to copper water pipes.

The PVC industry itself came under fire a generation ago over employee exposure to lead dust and particles in the manufacturing process. Exposure to lead dust can cause high blood pressure, kidney problems and mental slowness in adults; in children, it has been linked to retarded physical and mental development and learning disabilities.

Health officials and consumer groups have particularly expressed concern lead content in early generations of PVC pipes.

Meanwhile, the International Chemical Secretariat, a Swedish group that campaigns against hazardous chemicals, has pressed for tougher European standards on chemicals and has faulted the businesses and the chemicals industry for failing to find non-toxic substitutes for stabilisers and other substances. It publishes a ‘SIN List’ of 378 substances that it considers toxic to human health, including a number of stabilisers used in polystyrene, plastics and glass.

Efforts to minimise exposure

PVC manufacturers have cleaned up their production process to minimise worker’s exposure, in part through mechanisation. The industry expresses confidence that today’s products are safe and are produced with 70% less lead than the earlier generation of pipes and make up only a fraction of a pipe’s mass. Officials say countless studies have shown there is no health or environmental impact from today’s PVC water pipes or other productions.

Under the VinylPlus initiative, the PVC industry plans to introduce a sustainability label to highlight its targets to reduce energy and resource consumption, increase recycling and shift to calcium-based and organic stabilisers.

Some European manufacturers have voluntarily replaced lead stabilisers in water pipe, but industry officials say that while they are convinced of the safety of their products, consumer perceptions may still be coloured by health and safety concerns.

“The one thing that you do not want as an industry is running the risk that people will start asking questions about this [safety],” van’t Veer, who heads the TEPPFA voluntary commitment programme, said of the group’s promise to eliminate lead stabilisers. “We do not think that we are extremely green … this is sound business strategy. When you see that you are running risks somewhere, you try to prevent these. That was the reason to find alternatives on a voluntary basis to replace lead.”