There is presently a great deal of community discussion over the problems associated with plastics in our environment. Rodger Connolly, Executive General Manager at the Plastics Industry Pipe Association (PIPA), offers the plastic pipe industry’s perspective.
China’s recent ban on the importation of plastic waste has brought the issue into sharp focus, with federal, state and local governments in Australia and across the world suddenly faced with a waste dilemma they have long been happy to export.
Pick up any newspaper or magazine and you’ll be overwhelmed by the environmental problems attributed to plastics; be it microplastics entering the food chain, the mountains of waste packaging clogging landfill, or images of marine mammals and birds choking on plastic flotsam.
Much of the debate focuses on the problems associated with the disposal of plastic waste and the small percentages that are being recycled, but plastics have become an integral part of modern living and weaning society off its dependence on these materials will not come without pain.
“It’s right that society is outraged, and action must be taken soon to stop and reverse the environmental damage from plastic waste,” Mr Connolly said.
“But in our haste to find a ‘fix’, we must not overlook the situations in which plastics are providing benefits to society; in particular, their application in our water, gas and electricity infrastructure. I’d like to think we can engage in a balanced debate and consider all the facts.”
Mr Connolly outlined the numerous benefits of plastic pipe systems:
- Plastic pipe systems have a service life of around 100 years, which is two or more times longer than alternate metallic and masonry pipes
- Independent Life Cycles Analyses consistently demonstrate that far less energy is consumed, and thus less carbon emitted, in the construction of plastic pipelines
- Plastic pipe systems massively reduce the loss of potable water from leakage
- The pumping energy required to transport water and sewage through smooth-bore plastics piping is a fraction of that through cracked, broken and tuberculated non-plastic pipes
- Plastic drainage and sewer pipe utilise waste plastics in their inner core layers, helping to reduce the pressure on landfill disposal Plastic stormwater pipes protect the natural pH of streams and estuarine environments, reducing the likelihood of algal blooms and fish kills
- The lighter weight of plastic pipe allows for faster built and more affordable infrastructure and housing
- Plastic pipe facilitates trenchless renovation of aging infrastructure, reducing utility’s costs and disruption to customer services
- Similarly, many thousands of kilometres of communications and electrical conduits are annually drilled beneath streets with minimal disturbance to the assets above
- The flexibility and strain tolerance of plastic pipe minimises the failure of services in areas prone to seismic activity or mine subsidence
- The resins used to manufacture pipe do not contain toxic substances, like mercury, lead, cadmium, Bisphenol A or phthalate
- At the end of their first 100-year service life, plastic pipes are recyclable into new pipe products with an equivalent expected service life
A sustainable approach to pipeline construction
“Because of the long life of plastic pipe, very little in percentage terms is currently going to landfill. This is a fact that was confirmed to us by a NSW Government audit report of construction and demolition waste,” Mr Connolly said.
“We acknowledge that as an industry we haven’t done a particularly good job of informing the public of our industry’s recycling efforts.
For example, it’s not well known that more than 2,000 tonnes of PE pipe is recovered and recycled annually into non-potable irrigation pipes alone. This is predominantly sourced from abandoned mine sites and coal seam gas projects. In addition to that, around 650 tonnes of PVC is reprocessed into sandwich construction drainage pipe.
“Our major pipe producer members all have contracts with plastic recyclers to supply post-industrial and post-consumer scrap that supplements the supply of recyclate from their own collection centres. The PIPA website lists drop-off centres where the public can deposit clean scrap to avoid dumping levies.
“But we do need to be selective regarding the products in which this material is used. For example, pressure pipes cannot contain recyclate because of the stringent Australian product standard requirements for pressure and contact with drinking water specifications.”
Mr Connolly confirmed that PIPA recognises the environmental damage being wrought by discarded plastics, especially through the overuse of packaging and single-use water bottles.
His association’s members are acutely aware of the community focus on plastic products and their social licence to operate, but he strongly asserts that pipe is a responsible and smart use of the material; maintaining the only similarity between plastic pipes and drinking straws is their shape.