SPECIAL REPORT / Six months after the Rio+20 Earth Summit, a Belgian company, Deceuninck Nv., has begun living up to the plastic industry's voluntary commitments by turning discarded doors, windows and other goods made with PVC into new products.

Criticised for being short on details and weak on government action, the Rio+20 Earth Summit nonetheless earned good marks for businesses that used the international gathering as a stage to launch their own environmental initiatives.

Dozens of multinational corporations pledged in Brazil to become more planet-friendly and transparent in their reporting on sustainability measures.

Europe’s vinyl industry, for its part, agreed to a replace lead additives, cut energy use and boost the recycling of polyvinyl chloride plastics (PVC) that are commonly used in urban water pipes as well as household plumbing, windows and doors.

Six months since the summit and some 9,300 kilometres from Rio de Janeiro, a Belgian company has begun living up to that commitment, doing what EU Environment Commission Janez Potočnik recently called for all businesses to do: “to recycle, to substitute, to reduce and to make resources go further.”

Deceuninck Nv., which has been manufacturing doors and windows since before the Second World War, has inaugurated a new recycling plant that company officials say dramatically reduces its reliance on virgin resources by turning discarded doors, windows and other goods made with PVC into new products.

“Today we close the loop,” said Tom Debusschere, Deceuninck’s chief executive, referring to circle of the company’s goods from production, to use and to end-of-life reuse.

“PVC is a valuable material and should not end-up in a landfill or incinerator,” Debusschere said at the 17 October opening of the company’s first recycling facility, which can handle 20,000 tonnes of PVC annually.

Debusschere also says his company’s new windows and doors are nearly entirely recyclable.

The European PVC industry agreed at Rio to reduce its resource footprint by reclaiming 800,000 tonnes of PVC per year by 2020 – compared to the 255,000 the industry achieved in 2010. The VinylPlus project also commits the industry to phase out the use of lead by 2015, and to establish an industry label certifying PVC products as sustainable.

The recycling effort has been built from the bottom up over the past decade because PVC has a long life and has only been on the market since the 1950s.

The Rio disappointment

Other industries similarly made voluntary commitments amid criticism that Rio+20’s ‘The Future We Want’ roadmap contained few of the binding targets and commitments that European officials and ecology activists had hoped for.

Billed as the largest-ever UN conference, Rio+20 took place two decades after the first post-Cold War Earth Summit. Like green campaigners, some of the world’s leading trade groups and companies had hoped the conference would set the stage for clear targets on sustainable energy and development.

“We are very concerned about the lack of ambition and the lack of drive here amongst the international community to make the change,” said Peter Paul Van De Wijs, who was managing director of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) when the conference opened on 20 June.

“There’s too much political positioning in these discussions rather than taking a broader society view and to take responsibly,” said Van De Wijs, who formerly headed Dow Chemical’s water global water strategy team. “That’s why it’s quite unique that businesses here are calling directly for more targets, more action and smarter regulation.”

Some activists doubted that corporate bosses were serious and saw big businesses’ promoting voluntary commitments to discourage politicians from taking regulatory action. The Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels group that monitors lobbying in the EU, accused businesses of a “lobbying offensive” at the 2002 Johannesburg Earth Summit and “greenwashing” Rio.

Turning talk into action

But some industries say there’s action behind their talk. At Rio, some 24 multinational firms committed to ramp up ecosystem protections and corporate sustainability reporting in the absence of international standards.

And in the Flemish town of Diksmuide, Deceuninck executives say they are building sustainability into their business practices. The company sees a health market in recycling as PVC windows and doors first installed 40 and 50 years ago are being replaced with more efficient models.

Scrap is a cheap resource, they say, and recycling is less energy-intensive than producing goods from virgin material. The company’s recycling plant converts old plastics into granular PVC that is then used to produce new products - including the honeycomb-like sound-buffering panels found along Europe’s highways and railway lines.

Deceuninck’s chief executive called it the company’s “duty” to recycle. “We are convinced that this is the right thing to do, and that this €3-billion investment will be profitable within three years.”