Vinyl can be re-melted and reformed repeatedly. Used vinyl products or scrap can be washed, chopped or ground, and dried; the pieces can then be molded, extruded, calendered or otherwise formed into new products. All types of vinyl products can be recycled.
Additional information on recycling can be found in our Recycling Vinyl section - including two comprehensive databases about vinyl and recycling.
Reclamation and recycling of vinyl scrap are well-established businesses, accounting for more than 540 million pounds of material in 1997.1 Scrap (e.g., trim from finished products, off-spec material, etc.) is sold by one firm to another, perhaps further processed, and fabricated into new products such as garden hose, pipe, sound-deadening panels for automobiles and other products. Some reclaim is exported. About 270 North American recycling companies deal in vinyl scrap.2 Because of the extent of post-industrial recycling, some 99 percent of all vinyl ends up in finished products. Little waste is produced, which conserves landfill space and means that most vinyl products have some post-industrial recycled content.
About 18 million pounds of post-consumer vinyl was recycled in 1997 from sources such as carpet backing, medical products, windows and siding, and packaging. Rigid vinyl is recycled into useful products that include non-pressure pipe, window frames, electrical boxes, cooling tower fill, and mobile home skirts. The largest use for recycled flexible vinyl scrap is garden hoses. Other uses include automotive floor mats, pool liners, shoe soles, and products such as notebooks and checkbook covers. While the amount of post-consumer recycled vinyl is small compared to the total amount of vinyl produced, it is important to understand that post-consumer recycling depends heavily on material availability as well as cost factors such as collection and contamination. Most vinyl (about 70 percent) goes into long-life building products that are simply not available for recycling. PVC pipe, vinyl siding, windows, flooring, wallcoverings, roofing, fencing, decking, railing and electrical cable are intended to last many years – even decades. PVC pipe – the product accounting for the single largest use of vinyl – theoretically can last more than 100 years without deteriorating, based on accelerated testing.
Vinyl is not normally collected for recycling in municipal programs because the amount used for household containers and packaging is much smaller than the amounts of other packaging plastics such as PET (identified by number “1” inside chasing arrows on the bottoms of bottles) and HDPE (number “2”). Vinyl (number “3”) does have important packaging and container uses (e.g., blister pack, specialty bottles with handles, cosmetic packaging, etc.), but these contribute little to household waste.
The costs of collecting (and having to separate) small amounts of materials from other waste materials are enormously important in recycling, no matter what the material. With most materials, even tiny amounts of “contaminants” – that is, materials other than the one being targeted – can lead to rejection by the end user. Dealing with contamination increases the cost of recycling. If the total cost of obtaining recycled material exceeds the total cost of obtaining virgin material, the recycling rate will be low. If the contrary is true, the recycling rate will be high. Collecting and sorting costs can easily exceed the revenues that can be obtained from using recycled material.
For businesses, collection costs may be less of an issue. A carpet or ceiling tile manufacturer, for example, might contract with its client to take back used product in the same truck that delivers new product.
The Vinyl Institute has contributed funding and other support to many projects designed to address recycling contamination problems. Among the solutions are automated sorting systems that can efficiently scan and separate waste products by the type of plastic used in them. A number of automated systems are now in use throughout the country.
1 "Post-Consumer and Post-Industrial Vinyl Reclaim: Material Flow and Uses in North America," Principia Partners, July 1999.
2 "Directory of U.S. and Canadian Companies Involved in the Recycling of Vinyl Plastics and Manufacturing Products from Recycled Vinyl," The Vinyl Institute, August 2000.