Plastic – the material of choice for pipes

What role does plastic pipes play in peoples’ everyday lives? It's hard to comprehend the vast network of plastic pipelines installed and in operation here in Australia and around the world.

What role does plastic pipes play in peoples’ everyday lives? It’s hard to comprehend the vast network of plastic pipelines installed and in operation here in Australia and around the world.

Most plastic pipes are buried and remain in service for more than 100 years. Today’s plastic pipeline systems are still in their first life cycle. They deliver essential everyday services and utilities to homes and communities. This includes providing drinking water, gas, and electricity to homes and protecting the network of cables that deliver internet and other services. They are also used for irrigation systems essential for growing food, carrying away sewerage, rainwater, and stormwater, and protecting communities and the environment.

The Plastic Industry Pipe Association of Australia (PIPA) is the peak industry body representing manufacturers and suppliers of plastics pipe and fittings. They also represent plastic resin suppliers, fabricators, pipeline installers, rubber seal ring manufacturers, and training and certification bodies.

“When you look at the three key principles to a circular economy, plastic pipe systems align with all three. You can see why they are the preferred choice to replace and upgrade other pipe materials worldwide,” said PIPA’s Executive General Manager, Cindy Bray.

Plastic pipes are engineered products designed to last

The plastic material used in manufacturing pipes is planned to be robust, reliable, and recyclable. They are intended and designed to last a long time. The engineered polymers used are stable materials, and these properties are suitable for a product such as pipes when a long-life expectancy is required.

“Some people may be surprised by the production plants for manufacturing plastic pipes are relatively simple,” she said. “No combustion or chemical reaction is required; therefore, no smoke or emissions are produced.”

The main inputs are plastic pellets or powder and electricity. Production equipment is electrically powered, and heating is electric as temperatures are relatively low to melt the plastic. This results in a clean and enclosed process. Scrap or re-work material generated in the manufacturing process is re-used, designing out waste. Suitable post-consumer and pre-consumer materials can be used to manufacture non-pressure plastic pipes.

It’s essential for pipes manufactured with recycled content to conform to the relevant Australian Product Standards, just as pipes manufactured from virgin materials do. Plastic pipes must be fit for purpose due to their role in society, regardless of their composition.

Durability is a result of product design

Part of the circular economy is to design a product that can remain functional without requiring excessive maintenance or repair when installed correctly under normal operation over its lifetime.

“For plastic pipes, it is intended that they can be installed and not require any maintenance or repair for decades, unlike other materials,” said Bray.

Plastic pipes withstand the forces they are subjected to. They do not corrode or crack, resist chemical attack, resist abrasion and maintain a smooth bore for easy fluid flow and better hydraulics. They are also designed not to leach secondary material into the fluid flow, which is important for drinking water applications. Plastic pipes are safe for the people and the planet.

Many studies have been conducted in Australia and around the world. They consistently show the long-term performance of plastic pipes in operation. Those studies have also found no chemical degradation and the pipe’s integrity still intact. These studies can be found on the PIPA website.

“Plastic pipes offer clear advantages regarding chemical resistance over other pipe options. They are not affected by soil environments that are highly corrosive to metal and concrete,” said Bray. “Plastic pipes are not affected by compounds that form in wastewater. That includes acids that rapidly degrade iron and cement lines pipes, making them the ideal choice for long-term infrastructure. They also have the lowest overall failure rates in water infrastructure. That is compared to cast iron, ductile iron, steel, and asbestos cement.”

The lighter weight of plastic pipes has advantages during transportation, including increased pipes per truckload and installation. For open trench installation, plant equipment is minimised. Compared to heavier pipe materials, plastic pipes can increase lay rates and reduce CO2 emissions. The versatility of plastic pipe systems allows for the option for trenchless installation as well, particularly with polyethylene pipe. This allows for fewer disruptions during the installation or repair of existing pipelines. It provides flexibility and cost-effective installation and lowing the impact on the environment and community, according to Bray.

Plastic pipes protect the environment

Plastic pipes’ long-term, leak-free integrity prevents water loss, protecting the health of sensitive waterways and minimising flood risk. As a leak-free system, they eliminate the effect of erosion around the system. Plastic pipes have the flexibility to cope with soil movements and subsidence. They also protect the natural pH of streams and estuarine environments, reducing the likelihood of algal blooms and fish kills.

Closing the loop

As part of the industry’s commitment to sustainable practices, PIPA and its members aim to recycle the maximum amount of usable plastic pipe and other suitable materials into new plastic pipes. Due to the low volume of plastic pipes in the waste streams, PIPA and its members are taking practical steps to minimise the impact of plastic pollution.

Working collaboratively with waste management companies, distributors of products and specific clients’ plastic pipes at their end of useful life are collected for recycling. PIPA has also established a Plastics Pipes Recycling Program. They work with various partners across Australia to provide information and locations for end users to deliver their no-longer needed pipes and fittings. With other industry stakeholders within the plumbing sector, PIPA has established education and pilot programs to increase awareness about the sustainability of plastic pipes and to develop behaviours of appropriate disposal of off-cuts.

“It is easy to see why plastic is the material choice for pipe and supports a circular economy in a closed-loop system,” said Bray. “By using recourses responsibility through better design, we are working smarter. We’re committed. And we’re working towards creating a healthier environment and sustainable future.”

For more information on PIPA, visit their website and visit their sustainability microsite

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