Using plastic pipes for good

Cindy Bray is the Executive General Manager of the Plastic Industry Pipe Association of Australia (PIPA)

Plastic pipes and fittings have transformed how we live, delivering essential services and utilities to our homes and communities.

It’s hard to comprehend the vast network of plastic pipelines installed and in operation here in Australia and around the world.

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

As a non-profit association, PIPA promotes the appropriate and contemporary use of plastic pipes and fittings throughout Australia. This is achieved through its four key pillars of advocate, educate, technical and sustainability.

“By collaborating with our members, industry professionals and global counterparts, we leverage the latest insights and technology to develop robust guidelines for best practice manufacture, installation, and use of plastic pipeline systems,” said Executive General Manager Cindy Bray.

Underpinning our approach is a commitment to future-focused leadership. Through research, education, technical expertise, and advocacy, we help advance the use of plastic pipes and fittings as an innovative, efficient, and sustainable solution.”

Transitioning from a linear to a circular economy

With Australia’s focus on transitioning from a linear to a circular economy, PIPA recognises the importance of educating how plastic pipe systems align with the key principles of the circular economy – better use of resources, closed-looped resource flows and preventing waste and pollution through better design.

“When we talk about a circular economy, we are talking about an innovative model for rethinking our approach to products by design,” Bray said. “The aim is to ensure products are used efficiently and in use for as long as possible. Plastic pipe systems achieve this with their long life – from design, manufacturing, use, repair, re-use, recovery, and recyclability. You can see why contractors prefer to replace and upgrade other pipe materials worldwide. This is extremely important for critical infrastructure to last a long time.”

Plastic pipes are engineered products designed to last

The first phase of a circular economy is design and make. This covers efficient use of resources and prevention of waste and pollution through better design and manufacturing processes.

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 suit a product such as pipes requiring long life expectancy.

Durability is a result of product design

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

“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 to which they are subjected. They do not corrode and resist chemical attack. Plastic pipes 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, essential for drinking water applications. Plastic pipes are safe for the people and the planet.

Re-use before recover

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.”

Bray says that you can see why plastic is the material choice for pipes when looking at design, manufacture, installation, and performance benefits. They also support a circular economy in a closed-loop system.

Sustainable products

Alongside the importance of products being circular, Australia is also focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts. When it comes to plastic pipe systems, the industry has been working on understanding the baseline and determining how carbon-intensive our systems are.

“The most reliable way to do this is through Environmental Product Declarations (EDPs),” Bray said. “These are underpinned by a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and consider the whole life cycle of products or services compliant with the ISO standards. It looks at all areas of the lifecycle, including the origin of the raw materials, transportation, processing into production, distribution, installation and product use, maintenance, and end of life. EPDs provide information on environmental impacts, including energy, carbon and emissions.

Some PIPA members have published EPDs for their products. PIPA has worked with these manufacturers to establish an industry perspective on those aspects of the pipes’ lifecycle that are the same irrespective of manufacturer.

Using this information, PIPA has communicated the lifecycle stages of pipes and where the carbon impact occurs. It presents the opportunity to highlight the areas for decarbonisation. It also highlights how small the industry’s carbon impacts are compared to other materials like cement and steel.

“Some people may be surprised that the production plants for manufacturing plastic pipes are relatively simple,” she said. “No combustion or chemical reaction is required. As a result, 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.

EPDs are helpful for manufacturers to benchmark their products. They also meet market demand for science-based, transparent, verified environmental product information and data, supporting sustainable procurement.

“Establishing these benchmarks through an EPD enables our industry to be transparent with our environmental impacts and sets our pathway towards net zero,” Bray said. “It is easy to see why plastic is the material choice for pipe and supports a circular economy in a closed-loop system. By using resources responsibility through better design, we are working smarter. We’re committed and working towards creating a healthier environment and sustainable future.”

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