The circular economy of PVC

As public awareness over sustainability grows, the fenestration sector has a responsibility to redouble its efforts on window recycling, according to CEO of Rehau Martin Hitchin. As such, the business has invested £10 million into a state-of-the-art recycling facility located in the north of England, and unveiled ambitious targets to support this broader vision.

The average lifespan of a PVC window is around 35 years, and millions of windows are replaced in the UK each year on average as frames become time-expired or property owners look to upgrade.

Based on recent home improvement demands having grown through lockdown, the number of window replacement projects is anticipated to continue increasing. A conscious effort must therefore be made to significantly reduce the volume of polymer going to landfill.

At Rehau, our business has committed to the circular economy.

We have invested over £60 million into recycling infrastructure across the Rehau Group and our new window recycling facility is key to the highly ambitious sustainability targets across the business. Based in Runcorn, PVCR is the largest PVC recycler in the north west. The new purpose-built site sees 1,000 metric tonnes of post-consumer polymer windows and doors salvaged and processed every month.

Currently, the new purpose-built site enables 55% of the material processed to go back into window production at our north Wales extrusion factory, with reclaimed metals (which constitutes 20% overall) being sold on locally. Of the remaining total, 15% is made up of coloured PVC, which can be re-purposed for other products including children’s playground floors.

The site is centred around a highly efficient six-stage process:

  1. Post-industrial waste (off-cuts) and post-consumer waste (frames) are collected from customers by a network of waste management and logistics partners. All material is initially shredded at high speed, reducing the waste to 60mm particles.
  2. Pre-sorting commences to remove foreign particles.
  3. The polymer is ground into even smaller 10mm particles.
  4. An electrostatic sorting process removes any remaining material which is deemed unsuitable.
  5. An optical sorting procedure eliminates non-white material.
  6. The end product is transported to Rehau’s windows production facility in Blaenau, north Wales.

Rehau aims to recycle 100% more waste PVC by 2024, doubling current output over the next few years. This equates to 24,000 metric tonnes of old PVC window frames being salvaged and processed per year by 2024, which is equivalent to approximately 2,000 double-decker buses. Alongside this, more work will be done internally and with suppliers to optimise our PVC recycling processes and reduce energy consumption across the site, while constantly improving our separation process to minimise by-products and ensure adherence with continually updating sustainability legislation.

For the windows industry to improve sustainability, collaboration is key. To achieve this common goal, the entire supply chain has a shared responsibility to co-operate and work together. Therefore, communication from manufacturers through to fabricators, installers and end-users is required for this to be possible.

It is vital that consumers understand, and eventually specify or request, products that are produced as part of a circular economy.

On a final note, it is important to dramatically increase the recycling content of our products, to make sure that no PVC waste goes to landfill anymore.

As the UK public becomes more familiar with the benefits that PVC windows bring to our buildings, more work is necessary to raise awareness of recyclability beyond single-use plastic. At Rehau, sustainability is much more than a hot topic; it is the driving force behind our strategy. It is something we act on and invest in, and we hope the rest of the fenestration industry will get on board to ensure the window recycling process is as streamlined and mainstream as possible.