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It's a wrap at the London Olympics

Plastic is one of those funny materials. On one hand it is the big bad baddie (poisoning aquatic life and littering our streets). Yet on the other, it is the stuff that blood bags are made out of and other medical equipment.

Plastics recycling companies have been working hard to dispel the material’s negative image and the up and coming Olympics might go some way towards achieving this.

The Olympic Delivery Authority’s sustainability plan aims to deliver a “zero waste Games” and treat all waste as a “potential resource” and ensure 70% is reused, recycled or composted.

One type of polymer that could be about to get a bit of a publicity boost with the up and coming Olympics is PVC. The Olympic Delivery Authority says, “There are cases where, for Health & Safety reasons, the only solution is a PVC based material”.

PVC is being used as membrane wraps and roofing at venues such as the Water Polo Arena; the Aquatics Centre; Eton Manor; the Royal Artillery Barracks; the Basketball Arena and in the main stadium, Where the building is to remain as part of the Olympic legacy, PVC should prove a lasting feature. Or it may be re-used – as is planned in the case of the basketball arena, which is being rented. After the games the whole structure will be dismantled and reused somewhere else.

The British Plastics Federation says that in total over 142,000 square metres of PVC fabric are being used to create new London sports venues. But this material is also being used for performance sports surfaces, protective barriers, and matting and behind the scenes in wiring and piping.

Another key reason for using PVC is its ability to be recycled, argues Philip Law public and industrial affairs director at the BPF. “PVC is easily identifiable and is very tolerant of impurities so in the recycling process a little bit of extraneous material doesn’t affect it,” adds Law.

One project that has been helping to increase the amount of PVC recycled is the VinylPlus voluntary scheme, and its predecessor, Vinyl 2010. In 2005 just 6,000 tonnes of PVC was recycled but across the UK now around 50,000 tonnes are recycled. These figures exclude material already captured under packaging and WEEE regulations.

The scheme set up the organisation Recovinyl, which encourages PVC recycling and offers financial incentives. The UK agent for Recovinyl is Axion Consulting. Jane Gardner senior consultant at Axion argues that there is currently enough PVC plastics recycling capacity to deal with the throughput of this material but it will have to increase in the future.

Because, PVC is so long lasting it’s only now, for example, that the first round of PVC windows are starting to come through to be recycled. “PVC products have a long life and the first products must be 50 years old now they are only just coming to their end of life,” says Gardner. Positively, she adds, the “vast majority” of windows waste is captured.

The new PVC recycling scheme Vinyl Plus has a target to recycle 800,000 tonnes of PVC a year across its European members by 2020. It also aims to develop and exploit technology to tackle the more difficult to recycle material – around 100,000 tonnes of this total. Roger Mottram BPF Vinyls group chair and group environmental and regulatory affairs manager for Ineos Chlorvinyls has described these as new “stretching targets”. 

In 2010, at the end of the first decade-long vinyl recycling project - Vinyl 2010 - post consumer recycling of PVC in Europe hit 260,842 tonnes - an increase of 220,000 tonnes on 1999 levels. 

Gardner says the scheme is moving towards a situation where eventually PVC containing recycled product will be certified as containing recycled material, which will also improve its traceability.

It will be possible to identify products that have a percentage of recycled material in them. “So even if you are not recycling it in a closed loop, you are controlling where the material goes,” says Gardner. Rather than relying on mandatory reporting, the programme hopes to push up recycling rates by encouraging best practice. 

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