An ambitious research project spearheaded by the Vinyl Council of Australia has identified novel recycling applications in a bid to use the 1.2 million m² of PVC advertising banners sent to Australian landfill sites each year.
The two-year REMAKE Project explored the challenges of previously difficult-to-recycle vinyl coated polyester woven fabrics to find new uses for the billboard skins, as well as grain covers and truck tarpaulins totalling around 5,000 tonnes, that are landfilled each year.
Crucially, the scale of the Australian market demanded innovative and lower cost reprocessing solutions than those that exist in Europe.
With funding from the NSW Environment Trust for research and design, the Vinyl Council coordinated the project under its PVC Stewardship Program. Collaboration within and beyond the supply chain was key to success; project partners included Monash University, University of New South Wales, Vinyl Council members Rojo Pacific, Welvic Australia and PMG Engineering, the Outdoor Media Association and several potential end product manufacturers.
Studies into cost-effective reprocessing techniques and potential end products and markets for the recyclate culminated in a number of possible applications, ranging from market bags to safety floor mats, garden watering containers and roof tiles. Following prototyping, three product designs are being assessed for commercial viability.
The project encouraged participation to pursue opportunities for a circular economy, including peer to peer exchange and a successful Design Lab event. Recycling techniques ranged from composite reprocessing with other end of life vinyl products, mechanical and chemical separation alongside chemical engineering studies to evaluate recyclate properties.
The fresh approach of the students and product designers pushed beyond traditional reprocessing to 3-D printing, rotomoulding, compression welding and de-inking. An industry partner has patented a new, cost-effective, scalable chemical separation process and is attracting investment interest.
Significantly, this project has encouraged government and industry investment of more than $300,000 into PVC recycling in Australia. For the outdoor media industry in Australia, finding a practical recycling solution offers an opportunity to improve environmental performance and reduce waste disposal costs. The direct cost to the advertising and printing industry in NSW alone in sending billboard skins to landfill is around $200,000 per year and this could be invested in recycling.
Commenting on the REMAKE project, Vinyl Council Chief Executive Sophi MacMillan states that more work is needed to find a ‘long-term, market-based, viable solution.’ Next steps include further refining processing technologies, identifying other potential end users of the materials and encouraging sector investment in collection/recycling schemes to drive the program’s next stages.
Praising the project’s participants and their achievements to date, Sophi says their efforts have made a ‘valuable contribution’ to the industry’s progress in finding a solution to the recycling of PVC coated fabrics in Australia.
“The durability, weatherability and flexibility of these materials make them an excellent choice for many applications, yet they have been previously difficult to recycle. As a priority recycling area, this project has shown great potential for recovering these resources for use in new products.”
Sophi adds: “Further encouragement by government and the community of circular economy programs like ours would lift recycling rates, support reprocessing of complex products as well as generate jobs and promote innovation. This would lead to a step change in diverting difficult, but quality products from landfill and a move towards greater sustainability.
“While there is still more work to do, if we find a viable reprocessing technology and end product solution, then this has the potential to be replicated overseas.”