The most common questions I receive at trade shows like USGBC’s Greenbuild, and in my daily work presenting materials education to architects and designers all around the country, are about recycling. There is a perception among a few members of my audience that vinyl cannot be recycled, and that is simply incorrect. The reality is that vinyl is readily recyclable and this is a growing segment within the plastics and material recovery business.
Recycling and recycled content in new products are top of mind topics today because recycling brings with it reduced demand for new materials, it recovers embodied energy and it reduces the demand for landfill space. As a result, I thought it would be good to write a few articles about recycling of specific categories of products and this week I’ll address vinyl wallcovering.
Plastics are divided into two basic categories; thermoplastic and thermosetting. An example of a thermosetting material is synthetic rubber. When taken out of service it can be used in its shredded state, or pulverized and added to other materials as a filler component, but it cannot be re-melted and made into new homogeneous synthetic rubber products. This technique is sometimes referred to as ‘down-cycling’ or making products of lesser value than the original product from which the recycled material came.
Vinyl is the most commonly used plastic material in building construction. Unlike rubber, vinyl is a thermoplastic and can be re-melted and re-formed without significant loss of their original material properties and therefore of equal or higher value than the material from which it came. This is a significant advantage in closed loop recycling. If the product is a simple one like PVC pipe for example, recycling is a fairly straightforward process in which the pipe material is cleaned, melted, and extruded into new pipe. More information about the basics of thermosetting and thermoplastic materials can be found below:
If the product is more complex like wallcovering or windows for instance, the process becomes a little more complicated due to the presence of other materials in the composite. For example, coated fabrics like wallcovering or upholstery often have a backing or underlying threads. Adhesives or even debris from a wall or foam from a chair seat can get mixed in with the material to be recycled.
In Europe, recycling efforts have been in place at a high level for several years. Construction waste can be managed quite seriously and the problem of processing composite products presented an early challenge. Recycling proponents then invented a process called Texiloop® based on the vinyloop© process. The process is designed to separate all of the individual components of a product and improve the efficiency of recycling.
USGBC’s LEED building rating system Version 4 places a heavy emphasis on construction waste management as well as on recycled content in new products being installed. With the technology now in place, and with sustainability as their goal, many wallcovering companies now have material take-back programs to reclaim products coming out of service.
LSI Wallcovering offers their Second-Look products and was the first company to initiate closed loop wallcovering recycling. LSI takes back wallcovering made by any manufacturer as long as tests on samples show that the material does not contain heavy metals or materials that do not meet their strict quality control standards.
There are a number of wallcovering distributors who work with Second-Look to recycle their own products.
Other companies are offering similar programs, including Koroseal which has a reclamation program for fabric-backed (woven or non-woven) vinyl wallcovering.
MDC Wallcovering uses a recycled product program called RECORE, recycled wallcovering technology. It guarantees at least 30% total recycled content and 20% post-consumer content.
Wallcoverings are third-party certified as low-emitting materials, and many manufacturers and distributors are certified under NSF/ANSI 342 “Sustainability Assessment for Wallcovering Products.” The standard is used to evaluate and certify the sustainability of wallcovering products across their entire product life cycle. Based on LCA (life-cycle assessment) principles, this standard uses a point system to evaluate wallcovering products against established requirements. These include performance criteria and metrics in the areas of product design and manufacturing, long-term value, end-of-life management, corporate governance and innovation.
Wallcovering remains one of the best choices for a durable and easy to clean wall surface and the industry’s products continue to meet modern requirements for sustainability. However, many designers are unaware that recycling programs are even available.
Increased emphasis is being placed on landfill avoidance and recycled content. As designers become more aware of recycled materials many of them will encourage their use through the specification of those products.
Recycling rates are growing as more design professionals become familiar with available recovery programs. It will be through increased specification and use of vinyl wall coverings that recycling will continue to grow and a sustainable future be assured.
For more information visit The Wallcovering Association