Differentiation important when discussing lifecycle of plastic pipes

It’s hard to comprehend the vast network of plastic pipes installed and in operation in Australia and worldwide. Most of them are buried and have remained in service for more than 100 years. With the increased focus on reducing our environmental footprint and transitioning from a lineal to a circular economy, plastic pipes have advantages over alternative materials and are increasingly becoming preferred material of choice to replace and upgrade pipes throughout the world.

Aligning with the key principles of a circular economy, plastic pipes are designed minimising waste and pollution, are designed to be kept in use for a long time, and can be repaired and recycled.

The Plastics Industry Pipe Association of Australia (PIPA) was founded in 1999 and is the peak industry body representing manufacturers and suppliers of plastics pipe and fittings, plastic resin suppliers, fabricators, pipeline installations, rubber seal ring manufacturers along with training and certification bodies.

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

“One of the important features of plastic pipes is their design life,” said PIPA’s executive general manager, Cindy Bray. “They are intended and designed to last a very long time. In typical environmental conditions, plastics materials are well known to last for a very long time, in excess of 100 years remaining functional, without requiring excess maintenance or repair when used and installed correctly in normal operation over its design lifetime.”

One of the key focus areas for PIPA is to educate on the differences between plastic pipes and fittings to other plastics, like single use.

“Not all plastics are the same and too often plastics pipe systems are mistakenly put in the same category as single-use plastics,” said Bray. “Pipes are long-life products, not single use, made from materials engineered to be robust, reliable, recyclable with a service life in excess of 100 years.

This includes how they are different to other plastic products and why the manufacture of virgin material is critical for people and the planet. To help further educate on the positive use of plastics, PIPA has recently launched a digital campaign That’s using plastic for good. It differentiates plastic pipes from single-use plastic, highlighting the role they play. It’s an awareness campaign, targeted to those outside of the industry – differentiating plastic pipes from single-use plastic and highlighting the role they play in our everyday lives.

With good service life, most plastic pipes in use are still in their first life cycle. This makes comparisons between annual plastics consumption and the total annual plastics recovery misleading for plastic pipes and fittings. PIPA and its members are acutely aware of the problem society faces with plastic pollution and for more than two decades the industry has aimed to recycle the maximum amount of usable plastic pipe and other suitable materials into new plastic pipes.

“We are committed to maximising the use of post-consumer and pre-consumer recycled content in products while ensuring that products remain fit for purpose,” said Bray.

“Pipes manufactured with recycled content must conform to the relevant Australia Product Standards, just as pipes manufactured from virgin materials do. This is particularly important in infrastructure applications where reliable performance and long service life are primary considerations. Plastic pipes must be fit for purpose, regardless of their composition.”

Providing guidance on the use of recycled material
To provide education on the use of recycled materials PIPA published a discussion paper titled The Use of Recycled Materials in Plastic Pipes. This discussion paper outlines where recycled materials can be incorporated in plastic pipes, the sustainability advantages, addresses misleading comparisons of virgin and recycled material, and explains how they are long life products.

Further to this, PIPA has developed Industry Technical Guidelines POP208 Specification and Testing Guidelines for Recycled Materials Suitable for Non-Pressure Plastic Pipe Applications. This document defines specification and testing requirements for recycled material and products, which incorporate recycled material. It outlines the material’s characteristics and performance criteria required when using recycled materials. These documents are available on the PIPA website.

“This guidance is important to ensure materials recovered are reprocessed correctly,” said Bray. “It’s a valuable resource that we want to use. It’s also important for the end product to have a long service life”.

Improving sustainability now and into the future
Although there is low volume to recover due to the long life and integrity of plastic pipes systems, PIPA and its members are taking practical, meaningful steps to minimise the impact of plastic pollution. It is working together with broader industry to divert suitable plastic material from landfill into long-life, recycled pipe products that meet the relevant Australian and International Standards.

There is already now capacity to increase the use of recycled material across a range of non-pressure pipe products when suitable waste stream volumes become available – PIPA already has the solution. A great example of this is within PVC non-pressure pipes – through multi-layer extrusion technology (or sandwich construction), it allows recycled material to be used in the core layer of the pipe (the middle) between the inner and outer layers of virgin material. This means the core layer can be any colour, density, or formulation of rigid PVC material. The performance characteristics of these pipes is exactly the same as pipes made form 100 per cent virgin material. That’s the important role performance standards play.

The plastic pipe industry is proud of its environmental sustainability initiatives from best-practice material sourcing, manufacturing – with processes designed to reuse any scrap materials to make other pipes, end-of-life product stewardship and other programs.

PIPA’s plastic recycling program
Due to the low volume of plastic pipes in the waste streams, the pipe industry is always looking at ways to work collaboratively with waste management companies, major distributors of products and specific suppliers/clients to collect volumes of plastic pipes viable for designated recycling. With the various applications plastic pipes are used, there is not a single approach to collection, with some more challenging then others. PIPA has established a Plastic Pipes Recycling Program working with a variety of partners across Australia providing information and locations for end users to deliver their no longer needed pipes and fittings.

Agreements with major plastic pipe users
PIPA members form direct agreements with their customers and other collection and waste management organisations for the recovery of off-cuts and product at the end of its in-use phase.

“The plastic pipes industry is always looking to broaden collaboration across industries,” said Bray.

Education and pilot programs
PIPA has engaged with other industry stakeholders, such as the plumbing sector, to establish education and pilot programs to increase awareness on the sustainability of plastic pipes and develop the behaviours of appropriate disposal of off-cuts.

“Programs such as the Construction Plastics Recycling Scheme in Queensland, and the Plumbing Industry Plastic Recycling Scheme in Western Australia, not only educates but also provides the industry with valuable insights, behaviours and greater understanding of the volume of available plastic pipe offcuts and fittings from building, construction sites and education training facilities,” said Bray. “This data will enable us to paint a true picture of material available, enable us to expand these types of programs more broadly, and support better consumer investment and policy decisions.”

Success of these programs can only be achieved through collaboration of all key stakeholders within the industry from industry associations, manufacturers, merchants through to end users. Everyone has a responsibility and a role to play in diverting plastic pipes and fittings from landfill to contribute to a responsible and sustainable future.

Through these programs it provides PIPA the opportunity to visit TAFE’s and training colleges to speak with apprentices at the beginning of their careers about sustainability, recyclability of plastic pipes and encouraging them to continue the conversation about appropriate disposal when they are out of the classroom and back on site.

PIPA has also teamed up with Cool.Org, a company who brings real-world learning into classrooms providing free lesson plans that are mapped to relevant year levels and the Australian curriculum centred around environmental, social, economic and sustainability topics.

“I’m really proud of this partnership,” said Bray. “We’ve developed 10 lessons designed for Grade 5-6 students in the subject of design and technology – focusing on circularity and the good use of plastic. These lessons bring in design thinking, how pipes are used in our everyday lives, suitability of pipe materials, material efficiency and recycling. The project provides another opportunity for us to educate children and the broader community on the positive use of plastics.”

Through the whole lifecycle – manufacturing, use and disposal – the plastic pipe industry has and will retain its long-standing commitment to improving sustainable practices and outcomes in a way that benefits all Australians. Australia’s vast landscapes require large-scale, special-purpose systems to move water, wastewater, gas and to protect underground networks of power and communication cables. Plastic pipeline systems are robust and long-lasting, providing reliability now and into the future.