Sustainability underground

Plastic pipes play a vital role in growing food

Plastic pipes play a critical role in society’s life. They deliver essential services from urban to rural environments. But how are they in line with the broader sustainability goals of society? PIPA understands this challenge.

It’s hard to comprehend the vast network of plastic pipelines installed and in operation here in Australia and worldwide. Most of them are buried and remain in service for more than 100 years. Today’s plastic pipeline systems are still in their first life cycle.

“Plastic pipe systems align with all three key principles to a circular economy – designing out waste and pollution; keeping products and material in use, and regenerating natural systems. You can see why they are the preferred choice to replace and upgrade other pipe materials,” said PIPA’s Executive General Manager, Cindy Bray.

The sustainability story

Not all plastics are the same. Too often, plastic pipe systems are mistakenly put in the same category as short-lived, single-use plastics. PIPA and its members are acutely aware of the real problem society faces with plastic pipes and pollution resulting from its inappropriate disposal. It reflects the growing pressure to reduce reliance on short-lived, single-use products and the drive to increase post-consumer and pre-consume plastic recycling levels.

“As an industry that converts large volumes of virgin material into long-life products that deliver our essential everyday services to homes and communities, it’s important that we educate across a wide range of audiences on the role plastic pipes systems play,” she said. “This includes how they are different to other plastic products and why the manufacture of virgin material is critical for people and the planet. Our sustainability story provides these insights and context supported with data and science.”

Plastic pipes are engineered products designed to last

The plastic material used to manufacture pipes is engineered to be robust, reliable, and recyclable. They are intended and designed to last a long time, more than 100 years. The engineered polymers used are stable materials. These properties are suitable for a product such as pipes requiring long life expectancy.

“Some people may be surprised by the production plants for manufacturing plastic pipes are relatively simple,” said Bray.

The main inputs are plastic pellets or powder and electricity. Production equipment is electrically powered, and heating is electric as temperatures required to melt the plastic are relatively low. This results in a clean and enclosed process.

“No combustion or chemical reaction is required, and therefore no smoke or emissions are produced,” she said.

PIPA and its members continue showing their commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility. The members are program partners to Operation Clean Sweep, playing their role in working towards the prevention of pellet loss in Australia.

”Everyone in the industry has a role and responsibility to play throughout the supply chain,” said Bray. “It’s a collective effort where every little action counts and simple measures allow for effective results.”

Through manufacturing, scrap or re-work material generated is also re-used, designing out waste and therefore aligning with circular economy principles. Suitable post-consumer and pre-consumer materials can also be used to manufacture non-pressure plastic pipes. Having said that, the volume of appropriate material in the waste streams is low. The industry is always looking at ways to work collaboratively across the broader industries to collect a sufficient volume of plastic pipes viable for recycling.

Durability is a result of product design

Part of the circular economy is to design a product that can remain functional without requiring excess 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; they resist chemical attack and abrasion while maintaining a smooth bore for easy fluid flow and better hydraulics. They are also designed not to leach secondary material into the fluid flow, necessary for drinking water applications. Plastic pipes are safe for the people and the planet.

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

Plastic pipes are also lighter compared to other pipe materials. This has advantages during transportation – more volume per truckload and when it comes to installation. For open trench installation, the use of plant equipment is minimised compared to heavier pipe materials, which 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 allowing flexibility and cost-effective installation and lowering the impact on the environment and community.

Re-use plastic pipes before recovery, says PIPA

At the end of their long service life, plastic pipe systems in buried infrastructure applications can be re-used without removing them from under the ground.

“These services are likely to become a host for a new plastic pipe,” said Bray. “There is a strong focus on recycling, but reusing the pipe significantly reduces the use of energy and resources. It also reduces the environmental impact of digging up a pipeline after 100 years. There are some applications where suitable recycling streams are available such as pipe off-cuts, but it’s not for all of them.”

“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,” she said.

For more information on PIPA, visit their website

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