PVCU is polishing its halo

Chris Coxon, head of marketing at Eurocell, discusses what route PVCU can take when it reaches the end of the road.

Energy efficiency and sustainability are having an increasing impact on consumers’ general purchasing choices, and so it’s important to see how competing fenestration materials fare in the environmental stakes.

In terms of environmental performance, there’s not much to make a distinction between the main door and window frame materials, with no specific material having an obvious advantage in the relevant standard impact categories. Some will argue that aluminium frames contribute to heat loss more than wood or PVCU frames because of the inherent conductivity of metal, for example, but in general there is little to choose between each of them when it comes to performance, with A and A+ ratings largely the norm.

When it comes to end of life, though, that all changes, and this is where the differences begin to emerge.

PVCU is a very easy material to recycle and re-use, and the replacement window and door industry has an impressive record for recycling old frames and using them to make new ones.

Over 560,000 tonnes of what is referred to as ‘post-consumer’ material is recycled across Europe every year, aided by companies like Eurocell, which operate an advanced ‘close loop’ system for the recovery, recycling and reuse of PVCU frames.

Each time PVCU is recycled, the proportion of additives (such as impact modifiers) in the mixture can be adjusted to ensure it keeps its strength. It actually gets stronger the first few times it’s recycled, which means PVCU can be re-processed and used to make the same products it came from or for high-value, ‘upstream’ recycling.

Alternatively, the fibres in wood break down immediately when it’s recycled, meaning it can only be used to manufacture chipboard and other low-grade timber products or ‘downstream’ recycling. While it can be converted into biomass fuel and burned to produce green energy, proportionately few wood frames are sent for recycling. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 50% of the timber windows removed from refurbishment projects in the UK end up as landfill.

Like PVCU, recycling rates for aluminium are impressive, reaching 90% across Europe for the construction and vehicle industries. It can also be recycled and used to make new window and door frames, again and again.

The difference lies in the amount of energy consumed (and emissions produced) to recycle each one. PVCU is reprocessed at a modest 160ºC-220ºC compared to the 700ºC-750ºC or more required to melt down and recycle aluminium.

So, PVCU is not the poor relation that it’s sometimes considered to be in terms of sustainability and recycling.