Engineering Grad Seeking Solutions to a Vexing Plumbing Problem

Two men in holding PVC pipes lean against a van with the words Streamline Plumbing on the side

Levi Otis spends a lot of time thinking about polyvinyl chloride, more commonly known as PVC.

He’s a 2021 graduate of the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering, he owns a plumbing company, and like his colleagues, he spends a lot of time cutting and fitting plastic pipes. And that got him to thinking: What could he do to keep discarded PVC pipes out of the landfill?

“Throughout my time at UVA, the professors always made sure we understood that as future engineers, we were always thinking of improvements we could make to the world around us,” Otis said.

And that’s why, once a week and with gas prices near $5 a gallon, he drives 24 miles one-way from Charlottesville to the small Louisa County town of Troy.

When Otis and business partner Thomas Agnew launched Streamline Plumbing earlier this year, they wanted to stand out by making their business more environmentally friendly. “We did not want to just keep throwing away our PVC,” Otis said.

Levi Otis wears an orange hard hat and stands in front of a pile of refuse
PVC pipes and fittings are notoriously difficult to recycle, so most plumbers throw them out. Otis hauls leftover plumbing material to a recycling facility in Louisa County, the only one in the area that will take PVC. (Photo by Danielle Rose)

PVC pipes can indeed be recycled. They can be ground into pellets or powder, or chemically broken down to molecules, and then reformed into plastic. From previous stints with other companies, Otis knew most plumbers didn’t bother and simply tossed PVC pipes into the trash.

One problem, according to Lindsay Ivey-Burden, an assistant professor in UVA’s Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, is that what makes PVC the go-to pipe for plumbers is also what makes it hard to recycle. Chemical additives in the production process can make PVC very rigid, or quite flexible, Ivey-Burden said, and those different pipes can’t be mixed in a recycling bin.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, manufacturers produce about 870,000 tons of PVC each year, but so little is recycled that some of the agency’s charts round down the amount to 0%.

Part of that is the economics, Ivey-Burden said. Because household PVC isn’t routinely replaced – and because of the time-consuming sorting process – “it’s not really cost-effective to recycle, and there are not a lot of places willing to recycle it.”

Otis knows that from experience.

He and Agnew did some research and ended up at a recycling center in Troy. He says it’s the only place in the Charlottesville area that will recycle PVC.

A sign reads Stop, Proceed on scale slowly. Must come to a complete stop before entering scale.
Few plumbers recycle PVC because of the cost. Otis says he has spent $52 a load to recycle PVC at a Louisa County facility. (Photo by Danielle Rose)

“As soon as we found a center that recycled it, we jumped on the opportunity,” Otis said.

Once a week, Otis and Agnew stack the leftover PVC pipes neatly in their work van and drive to Troy. It’s not cheap.

“Every time we drop anything off to the recycling center, we get charged a fee,” Otis said. “Recycling specifically PVC can get pricey, as we have paid upwards of $53 per drop-off.”

Even so, Otis said he wanted to oversee the first plumbing company in the surrounding area to recycle his company's leftover PVC.

“It is our vision that motivates us to recycle and go about plumbing the way we do, not just focusing on the financial benefits,” Otis said.

Otis has only been at this a short time – he found the PVC recycling center just a few weeks ago – but since then he and his partner have managed to recycle 90% of the plastic pipes.

They hope more plumbers will go that extra mile in the future.

Media Contact

Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications