Plastic – the material of choice for pipes

Today’s plastic pipeline systems are still in their first life cycle.

Have you ever thought about the role plastic pipes play in our everyday lives? They deliver essential everyday services and utilities to our homes and communities. 

This includes drinking water, gas and electricity to our 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 our 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. You can see why they are the preferred choice to replace and upgrade other pipe materials throughout the world,” PIPA Executive General Manager Cindy Bray says.

Plastic pipes are engineered products designed to last

Plastic pipes are lighter weight compared to other pipe materials.
Plastic pipes are lighter weight compared to other pipe materials.

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

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

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 says. 

Scrap or re-work material generated in the manufacturing process is re-used, designing out waste. Suitable post-consumer and pre-consumer material can be used in the manufacturer of non-pressure plastic pipes.

Bray says it’s import 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.  

Durability is a result of product design 

Part of the circular economy is to design a product that has the ability to 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 says.

Plastic pipes withstand the forces they are subjected to, they do not corrode or crack, 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. These studies can be found on the PIPA website. 

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

“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.”

In comparison, Bray says plastic pipes are lighter weight compared to other pipe materials, and 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.  

The versality of plastic pipe systems allows for the option for trenchless installation as well, particularly with polyethylene pipe. This allows for fewer disruptions during installation or repair of existing pipelines allowing flexibility and cost-effective installation and lowing the impact to the environment and community.

Plastic pipes protect 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 says from manufacture, design, installation and performance you can see 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,” she says. 

For more information visit PIPA.

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

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