Plastic – the material of choice for pipes

Plastic used to manufacture pipes is engineered to be robust, reliable, and recyclable.

PIPA Executive General Manager Cindy Bray spoke to The Australian Pipeliner on the benefits of plastic when it comes to choosing material for pipes.

Have you ever thought about the role plastic pipes play in everyone’s life? They deliver essential everyday services and utilities to homes and communities.

This includes drinking water, gas and electricity to everyone’s homes, protect the network of cables that deliver internet and other services, are used to in irrigation systems to that are essential for growing food and carry away sewerage, rainwater and stormwater protecting communities and the environment.

It’s hard to comprehend the vast network of plastic pipelines installed and in operation here in Australia and around the world as the majority of them are buried and remain there in service for in excess of 100 years. Today’s plastic pipeline systems are still in their first life cycle.

“When you look at the three key principles to a circular economy – designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and material in use and regenerate natural systems, plastic pipe systems align with all three,” Bray stated.

“You can see why they are the preferred choice to replace and upgrade other pipe materials throughout the world.”

Plastic pipes withstand the forces they are subjected to.
Plastic pipes withstand the forces they are subjected to.

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 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,” Bray 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.”

Engineered 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 the manufacture of plastic pipes are relatively simple,” Bray said.

The main inputs are the 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 very clean and enclosed process.

“There is no combustion or chemical reaction required and therefore no smoke or emissions are produced,” Bray 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.

Through manufacturing, scrap or re-work material generated is also re-used, designing out waste therefore aligning with circular economy principles.

Suitable post-consumer and pre-consumer materials can also be used to manufacture non-pressure plastic pipes.

It’s also important for pipes manufactured with recycled content to confirm to the relevant Australian Product Standards, just as pipes manufactured from virgin materials do. Due to the important role plastic pipes play they must be fit for purpose, regardless of their composition.

Plastic pipes resist chemical attack, abrasion and do not corrode.
Plastic pipes resist chemical attack, abrasion and do not corrode.

Durability – 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,” Bray said.

Plastic pipes withstand the forces they are subjected to, they do not corrode, resist chemical attack, they 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 drink water applications. Plastic pipes are safe for the people and the planet.

There have been many studies conducted in Australia and around the world showing long term performance of plastic pipes in operation, showing no chemical degradation and the integrity of the pipe still intact.

“Plastic pipes offer clear advantages in terms of chemical resistance over other pipe options. They are not affected by soil environments that are highly corrosive to metal and concrete,” Bray said.

“They are not affected by compounds that form in wastewater such as 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 compared to cast iron, ductile iron, steel and asbestos cement.”

Plastic pipes lighter weight compared to other pipe materials can have its advantages during transportation – more volume per truck load 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.

Reuse before recover

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

“These services are likely to become a host for a new plastic pipe,” Bray said.

“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.”

Protecting the environment

The long term, leak free integrity of plastic pipes prevent water loss, protecting the health of sensitive water ways 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 and protect the nature pH of streams and estuarine environments, reducing the likelihood of algal blooms and fish kills.

Bray said from manufacture, design, installation and performance, it is visible why plastic is the material choice for pipe and supports a circular economy in a closed loop system.

“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,” Bray said.

For more information on PIPA visit

This article featured in the September edition of The Australian Pipeliner. 

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