Pipe dreams

Features - Emerging Markets

The desire by PVC pipe makers to keep their formulas proprietary has hindered recycling efforts for scrap PVC pipe.

September 8, 2014
Brian Taylor

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 producers, is now almost entirely 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.

According to a 2012 analysis by two trade groups (the American Architectural Manufacturers Association and the Window and Door Manufacturers Association), “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 eroded in the form of copper water pipes being replaced with PVC piping.

While demolition contractors and mixed C&D recyclers benefit from the relatively high scrap value of copper and brass when they encounter it, PVC piping yields no such payday.

The PVC pipe recycling market remains underdeveloped, in part because makers of these products use differing chemical formulas that can make it difficult to later blend scrap streams from different sources.

Unwelcome substitute

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 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.

PB was eventually the subject of lawsuits contending its makers touted exaggerated “lifetime” claims for pipes that often failed suddenly. Such pipes were pulled from the market in 1995.

PVC and CVPC (chlorinated polyvinyl chloride) have gained adherents and market share, however, and 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 the emergence of PVC piping as a rival to copper, the end-of-life scenario for PVC piping has not been as beneficial for demolition contractors and recyclers.

One of the barriers to healthy end markets for PVC piping is that manufacturers are guarded with their patented formulas for their PVC or CPVC pipes. 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 products among the materials they are trying to recycle, 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 can often be a frustrating experience for demolition contractors and mixed C&D recyclers, the market for vinyl siding and windows has shown improvement.

On its website, www.vinylinfo.org, the Vinyl Institute, Alexandria, Virginia, has a list of finished products using PVC (polyvinyl chloride), 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,” says Bray. “These are relatively free of contaminants and can be blended together. Some recyclers have also added window and door profiles into the mix but the level of contamination (glass, steel and insulation) can make recovery cost-prohibitive,” adds Bray.

Shermans Valley Recycling, Loysville, Pennsylvania, has invested heavily to become a growing processor of vinyl siding, fencing, windows and doors.

As detailed in the September/October 2012 issue of Construction & Demolition Recycling magazine (in the article “Humble but hungry”), Shermans Valley accepts loads from vinyl siding installers as well as from C&D recyclers.

Dem-Con runs a mixed C&D sorting plant (See the cover story “Forward thinkers” starting on page 16.), but it has not made 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,” says Keegan. “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 somewhat from Dem-Con’s, but success stories are not widespread.

“It isn’t worth much and it is very difficult to bale in order to make shipping easier,” is one response Turley says he gets from members. Some recyclers, he notes, blend the material with other types of plastic in mixed plastics 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,” says Bray. “Pipe manufacturers will use [differing] combinations to create their feedstock for PVC piping. This makes collecting, processing and reusing extremely difficult.”

Closed loop recycling systems can work for pipe makers themselves, notes Bray, who can use manufacturing cut-offs within their own plant or work with a recycler who is collecting, packaging and shipping the material to another site.

In California, CDRA member Michael Gross of Zanker Materials Recovery, San Jose, says his company found one outlet, but the 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,” says Gross. “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?

The recycling of construction scrap and having an end-of-life recycling market for building materials is among the goals of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system overseen by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Washington, D.C.

A 2010 pilot credit program established by the USGBC targeted PVC and CPVC as materials that green builders should consider replacing, although the USGBC’s motive was more about 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.

Among the foremost advocates of building materials composed of vinyl polymers is The Vinyl Institute, Alexandria, Virginia. A page on the institute’s website at http://vinylinfo.org/recycling/product-list displays a list of manufacturers who use recycled vinyl in the making of their products, although it is unclear how many use PVC or CPVC piping.

On the Vinyl Institute page with links to media reports concerning vinyl recycling, the stories on the recycling of siding and windows predominate. However, there is one article about Charlotte Pipe and Foundry Co. in Charlotte, North Carolina, which manufactures PVC pipe that uses recycled material.

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, says the Vinyl Institute. “It is a co-extruded, solid-wall pipe that uses virgin material for the inner and outer skins of the pipe.”

On its website, www.charlottepipe.com, Charlotte Pipe describes RePVC as “the first PVC DWV (drain-waste-vent) pipe that uses recycled content.” The company also runs a foundry that converts scrap metal into cast iron pipes, so its willingness to use recycled material on the plastics side may provide the type of boost the PVC piping recycling market needs. C&DR


The author is editor of Construction & Demolition Recycling magazine and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.