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European Parliament decision to ban high lead (Pb) content in recycled uPVC may have implications on the UK’s stormwater and drainage sectors

On the 12 th February, the European Parliament voted down a proposal by the European Commission that would have allowed post-consumer un-plasticised polyvinyl chloride (uPVC) waste with 2% lead (Pb) content (20 times higher than the current threshold) to be recycled and used in certain applications. This ruling may have a significant impact on the drainage, sewerage and stormwater management sectors in the UK.

The European Parliament’s vote will not have any direct impact on precast concrete drainage products. But many products used on-site in conjunction with precast concrete chambers and soakaways, such as recycled PVC pipes and geocellular tanks, may be affected.

Heavy metals such as Lead (Pb) were traditionally employed as heat stabilisers in PVC products. However, lead (pb) was then identified as a toxic substance which can cause significant health damage, including irreversible neurological damage. This has led the industry to completely phase out the use of lead (Pb) in Europe by 2015. European virgin uPVC products today, including PVC pipes and geocellular tanks (stormwater crates), use different types of stabilisers (e.g. calcium based) with very little or no toxicity. However, this has left hundreds of thousands of tonnes of old post-consumer uPVC (window frames, etc) with significantly high proportion of lead (Pb) and other ‘legacy additives’ exceeding 2% of the product’s mass. Current rules restrict lead (Pb) content to 0.1% only.

The European Commission has originally proposed derogations (exemptions) to allow a higher lead (Pb) threshold in post-consumer recycled uPVC of up to 2%. Such post-consumer uPVC waste would then be usable in a limited number of applications. One option was to use it in sewerage pipe walls provided that the recycled core is protected by layers of virgin uPVC. Another area of potential application would have been geocellular tanks (stormwater crates) as the newly released European Standards for geocellular tanks (EN 17150- EN 17152) allow for recycled PVC to be used. The European Commission’s amendments were met by resistance from some NGOs, researchers and academics, leading to a wide campaign ahead of the vote. The EU parliamentary Environment Committee, which voted weeks earlier to reject the proposals, suggested that the amendments would violate the REACH Directive and would pose a risk to public health.

Despite UK’s exit from the EU last month, European Parliament decisions are still legally binding during the current transitional period. Contractors, specifiers, builders’ merchants and developers are strongly advised to re-assess their options following the European Parliament vote and talk to their suppliers about the presence of lead (Pb) and other legacy additives in any recycled uPVC drainage or stormwater products they use.

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