Plastic pipe industry chief: Banking on a greener future

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This article is part of our special report Plastics and PVC.

Growing market requirements for ‘green procurement’ is driving sustainability, but the success of voluntary corporate sustainability initiatives depends on the attitude and enthusiasm of businesses to live up to higher standards, says Tony Calton.

Tony Calton became general manager of the European Plastic Pipes and Fittings Association (TEPPFA) in April. A civil engineer, he previously worked in the United Kingdom for the Brussels-based Aliaxis Group. He responded in writing to questions from EURACTIV's Timothy Spence.

The Rio+20 conference a year ago in June saw the launch of a number of corporate environmental sustainability initiatives. The PVC industry has also pledged to improve its own environmental performance through what you call the VinylPlus. What does this involve?

The European PVC plastic pipes industry already absorbs around 50,000 tonnes of recyclate each year as a result of previous voluntary commitments. The overall VinylPlus initiative is building on this success with an ambitious target to increase annual consumption of recyclate to 800,000 tonnes. In fact the plastic pipes industry has made a pledge to use 100% of the rigid PVC pipes recyclate available. In addition to this rigid PVC recyclate from other sources, such as profiles, is also being used.

Other successes under the VinylPlus commitment achieved by the pipes industry on the basis of voluntary commitments include the replacement of lead-based stabilisers with alternative substances.

VinylPlus represents voluntary commitments. How effective can these be if they are not backed by regulations that are not enforceable?

The effectiveness of such voluntary schemes partly relies on the attitude and enthusiasm of the industry sector involved. Clearly, as in this case, it helps if there is good alignment with their overall Corporate Social Responsibility declarations. However, fundamental to the success of such schemes is a commitment by all stakeholders and the complete supply chain to embrace the initiative and be fully supportive of the benefits it can provide to the whole industry. The ever-increasing market requirements for “green procurement” in both the public and private sectors have also contributed to the success of this initiative.

Ultimately, if backed by legislation, non-participating manufacturers would be realigned and a level playing field would be re-established.

Not all producers agree to live by the voluntary standards you are talking about. Can you compete successfully if you are operating at a higher – and presumably more costly – level than companies that are not bound by the same standards?

All TEPPFA members have committed to participating in the VinylPlus scheme with the technical and financial implications this entails. Clearly there are companies outside of TEPPFA who have chosen not to sign up to the scheme and obviously do not have the same obligations until imposed by legislation. However, the market is also being increasingly influenced by requirements for “green public procurement” which should not be underestimated as an incentive for manufacturers to be active in this area.

The members of TEPPFA have always taken an extremely responsible approach to maintaining the balance between the reliability of their products and the ever-increasing environmental pressures to improve the level of recycling and achieve ultimate resource efficiency. They are committed to continuing to comply with all the relevant European and National Standards and not compromising on product performance in their efforts to increase the use of recyclate.

It must be recognised by all stakeholders and policymakers that there is further work to be done in terms of adapting product standards and other areas of EU regulation, such as REACH [the chemicals directive], to allow the increased use of recyclate. The members of TEPPFA are committed to working with the commission and the relevant authorities in member states to achieve this evolution whilst also ensuring it does not compromise on the fitness for purpose of their products.

Despite all the talk about sustainability and resource efficiency, on average 40% of piped water in the EU is lost before it gets to consumers. What should be done to change this?

Good progress has been made over the last few years in terms of addressing this issue through the rehabilitation of water distribution networks. This can easily be demonstrated by the increased activities of TEPPFA members involved in the supply of pipes for water mains.

It is now widely recognized that plastic pipe systems for water supply systems offer long-term durability and integrity which will help to ensure that these replacement systems will secure our water supply in the future.

The importance of reducing leakage in sewer networks should also be acknowledged in this context as clearly this will help to prevent pollution of the aquifer which is often a vital source of drinking water.

Greater recognition is required of the part that water network rehabilitation can play in reducing water consumption. Increased investment in this area could be more effective than some ongoing initiatives designed to reduce the level of non-potable applications where drinking water is currently used.

Representatives of your industry have complained that the EU’s chemicals directive – REACH – could hurt your efforts to create a circular economy for pipes and other PVC products. How so?

The issue of re-using end of life product (including legacy substances), often manufactured many decades ago, that contain additives which are now, or will in the future be covered by REACH needs to be carefully addressed to avoid a situation where such material cannot be cost effectively recycled.

It is important to note that such material can be incorporated into pipes without any additional risk to health or the environment and without compromising on product performance.

What would you do differently if you could advise the EU regulators and policymakers?

We would quite simply ask that the EU regulators and policymakers provide every opportunity for representative industry bodies such as TEPPFA to be actively involved in the development of pragmatic solutions for resolving the issues of legacy substances under REACH and most importantly they recognize the relevance and importance this now has to the success of other EU initiatives to reduce landfill and further encourage recycling.

We consider that there is a compelling case to allow the controlled use of legacy substances in recyclate for products such as pipes that do not pose a risk to consumers or the environment.

PVC has been around for more than 50 years now and is probably best known in water pipes and plumbing. In the early years there were health concerns raised by the lead that the industry used as a stabiliser. Today, are you confident that your products are safe for consumers?

PVC pipes and fittings are now used for numerous product application areas and, in fact, they are the default material for many of these.

The industry has invested heavily in recent years to move away from lead-based stabilisers. However, it must be stressed that these products do not pose a risk to health and, as stated above, in order to ensure that we increase the use of recycled materials and not consign this valuable resource to landfill it is important that any myths are dispelled. This will allow us to move forward with improving our environment by embracing the opportunity to recycle this material in products which will serve the community for many decades to come. 

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