The European PVC cycle: In-use stock and flows

More than any other material, plastic is likely the commodity that has changed and characterized everyday life in the last 60 years. Although fairly young, the petrochemical industry has grown rapidly and moved to a variety of products and applications that has become one of the biggest industries worldwide. Notwithstanding such a presence in the modern society, plastics have been little analyzed from a material flow analysis perspective; low recycling rates and a strong reliance on primary material inputs give plastic greatest potentials for closing material loops. With this aim, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) stocks and flows in Europe are investigated historically to 2012. By volume, PVC is one the major thermoplastics used today and its employment in applications having relative long lifespans such as building and construction implies accumulation in anthropogenic reservoir as future sources of secondary material. The results show that about two thirds of the cumulative apparent consumption of PVC are still in use, reaching about 270kg/capita at current levels. The remaining one third that came out of use has been mostly landfilled, with only a minor fraction being recycled. Flow analysis shows that significant margins for improving material and energy recovery at end-of-life do exist for PVC if the recycling challenge is timely and properly addressed in the coming years. Design for recycling, ban on plastic landfilling, and recycling targets with a focus on the recycled content in new products are keys for ensuring resource efficiency and the creation of an adequate recycling infrastructure across Europe.