How to Recycle PVC (Plastic #3)

Perhaps the most toxic plastic around, PVC plastics have a big impact on the environment and your health.

By Maryruth Belsey-Priebe

Fact checked by Sander Tamm

Recycling PVC (Plastic #3)
Recycling PVC (Plastic #3) / Sander Tamm / Ecolife

Polyvinyl chloride or PVC plastics are everywhere, and you’re not likely to be happy about how they can harm your health and the planet. Given their widespread use and relative toxicity, they are often termed the “poison plastic” in the world of plastic products. Read on to learn more and find out how to protect yourself from this harmful type of plastic.

Environmental facts about plastic #3

Perhaps the most toxic plastic around, PVC plastics have a big impact on the environment and your health. These are the PVC facts:

  • Aliases: Other than the “poison plastic,” this type goes by several names including polyvinyl chloride, PVC, vinyl, plastic #3.
  • Consumption rates: PVC plastic is the fifth most common plastic type used in the US bottle market, with a 0.3% market share (behind PET, HDPE, PP, and LDPE plastic). More than 7 billion pounds of the stuff is thrown away every year in America and in the UK, 18.6% of it gets recycled. Worldwide there is over 300 billion pounds of PVC in use (having been installed 30 or 40 years ago in buildings) which will soon reach the end of its life and requiring disposal.
  • Human health: Dioxins are the biggest problem with PVC. Dioxins are created as a byproduct of the manufacturing of PVC which is composed partly of chlorine. Dioxins, which are now ubiquitous in our food supply, are highly toxic, leading to developmental and reproductive disease, immune system damage, and cancer.
  • Pollution: Making PVC requires toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), ethylene dichloride (EDC), and other pollutants that poison surface water, ground water, and air.
  • Disposal: Because it is difficult to recycle, PVC is often burned in incinerators, but because it contains chlorine, this process creates more dioxin, which then is emitted into the atmosphere and waterways. Medical waste incinerators, backyard burn barrels, secondary copper smelters, and municipal solid waste incinerators account for 80% of all dioxin emissions to air. Disposing of PVC into landfills results in dioxin poisoning of landfills and groundwater.

Where you’ll find plastic #3 in your home

By and large, any flexible, durable plastics products are likely to be made with PVC. Vinyl takes on many forms, and can be found in a wide range of consumer goods, including:

  • Baby dishes and utensils
  • Bags for textiles (bedding)
  • Blister packs and clamshells containers
  • Decking
  • Faux leather products – shoes, handbags, briefcases
  • Food shrink wrap
  • Medical equipment – tubes, blood bags
  • Pipe
  • Toys
  • Vinyl flooring
  • Vinyl siding
  • Window frames
  • Wire insulation

Is recycling PVC plastic possible?

PVC is very difficult to recycle, and as a result very little of it is actually collected and processed in recycling facilities. Made from many different formulations composed of various additives, PVC products cannot easily be separated for recycling, which makes breaking vinyl products down into their original components nearly impossible. When it is recycled, it is made into inferior, lower quality products, such as the following:

  • Binders
  • Cables
  • Carpet backing
  • Decking and fencing
  • Film plastic
  • Flooring – mats, tiles, resilient flooring
  • Park benches
  • Pipe
  • Speed bumps and traffic cones

To further complicate matters, when a single PVC bottle is combined with a batch of 100,000 recycled non-chlorinated bottles, the entire batch is contaminated and unusable.

Tips for PVC recycling

Because the risk of contaminating a good batch of recyclable plastics (like PETE or HDPE) with PVC is very high, you definitely need to check with your curbside recycling collection office or recycling drop-off center to confirm whether or not they accept PVC for recycling before you include with your other plastics. If it is not recyclable in your area, then follow these steps to reduce the amount of PVC you consume and send to the landfill:

  • Precycle PVC by limiting your consumption of it. Avoid flexible plastics, stay away from products with plastic #3 symbols on them, and look for home renovation products that are vinyl-free.
  • Reuse any PVC products you may have – whether it’s an old faux leather handbag or vinyl flooring. Keep it in use as long as possible, and when you no longer have use for it, find someone else to sell it to or donate it to.