Business as usual

The EU ruling to ban the inclusion of lead in recycled PVCU material contradicts the pledge for a circular economy, say Simon Scholes, MD of Veka Recycling and vice chairman of the recycling group of the British Plastics Federation.

Last month the European Parliament in Strasbourg voted against the long-standing extension of the directive in which post-consumer window and door profiles containing legacy lead substances have been acceptable for recycling into new window profiles and other valuable products.

The ruling by the EU says that old frames containing even traces of lead, an element that is rendered totally safe by being embedded in the polymer and which may never seep or even be deliberately extracted from the polymer, can no longer be recycled.

If the ruling is upheld, thousands of tonnes of this material, over many decades to come, may only be disposed of by incineration or placing into landfill.

To say that this vote came as a shock to the European PVC industry is an understatement.

Veka is a pioneer of the recycling of end of life PVCU window and door frames, having constructed the very first purpose-built recycling plant for old frames as long ago as 1993 in Germany. The reprocessing of old frames is now well established and practised by many of Europe’s largest PVCU system manufacturers. In the UK, we are joined by Rehau, Eurocell, Deceuninck, Profine and others with either UK-based, purpose-built recycling plants or a commitment to recycling as many old window frames as possible; to return the material to the market as brand new rigid plastic products.

Later this year, Veka Recycling, the British arm of Veka Umwelttechnik and itself wholly owned by Veka GmbH, will complete construction of the most advanced PVCU recycling plant in Europe and probably in the world. It will complete a process that has taken almost two years and at a cost of more than £10 million. It is also the result of a commitment by Veka that extends way beyond business economics to continue a commitment to responsible use and re-use of PVCU which, once produced as a virgin polymer, becomes a highly valuable resource that must be treasured and reused, over and over, to reduce its impact on the environment.

The ruling by the EU flies in the face of widely published and agreed scientific international research and threatens to pollute our planet way beyond the falsely perceived benefits of ending the agreement. It is also a slap in the face of Veka, and companies like ours, which have spent £millions on recycling technology, collection and sorting schemes, based upon sound and widely accepted scientific research and the overwhelming dynamic that is the desire for environmental protection.

If we are to apply the current decision, it will mean that we concentrate only on virgin off-cuts and old PVCU windows that are known to be 100% lead free, the latter of which will be almost impossible to ascertain. From our point of view, this is neither ecologically nor economically feasible. This decision, however it is viewed, is bizarre and contrary to everything that is rational, let alone the European pledge to encourage and promote a circular economy. The PVC industry is collectively trying to understand how this happened.

Presently, the UK is under no obligation to adopt the new ruling, and a great deal of work is being undertaken to ensure it is one that is not adopted in the UK at the end of the transition, simply as a re-labelled duplicate policy. And as part of my role within the British Plastics Federation I am lobbying UK government and departments such as Defra to ensure this is not carried over.

We have the support of the UK PVC industry to help educate our ministers to adopt sensible and economically positive policies for our country as we transition out of Europe. This is our opportunity to bring long term benefits to the economy of Great Britain by committing to a circular economy that brings scientifically proven long-term benefits. We may have lost our voice inside the EU but a pragmatic and sensible approach by our government will bolster the efforts by our European industry colleagues.

Andreas Hartleif, chairman of the board of Veka Group and also chairman of EPPA, the European PVC Profiles and related Building Products Association and therefore representative of the European PVC industry, is at the forefront of representations to the European Parliament to overturn the decision.

In a recent magazine interview he said: “The ongoing lobby work of our European association is extremely important these days. We will continue to talk to politicians intensively to give the sustainable circular economy within our industry a solid and reliable base. At the same time, we are very confident that the European Commission will take the necessary actions to ensure that the recommendation that is backed by official European agencies like ECHA will be confirmed by the Parliament in a second vote.”

It is widely hoped that the decision to end the recycling of PVCU frames containing traces of heritage lead, and send them to landfill or burn them instead (landfilling PVCU is actually illegal in Germany), will be recognised as flawed and will be overturned.

However, an early benefit of the UK leaving the European Union is that the new Veka Recycling plant based in Wellingborough will continue not only to receive and reprocess end of life frames, it will be completed as scheduled. And, removed from the gaze of such arcane rulings and irrespective of the outcome of any lobbying to correct the decision, Veka Recycling will continue to offer the most effective solution for dealing with this valuable commodity.

Just as, I feel certain, will every other UK based recycler. In the UK at least, it is very much business as usual.