Plastic? It's much greener

19 July 2012


A new study by the European plastic pipe industry body TEPPFA is conclusive in its findings that plastic is more sustainable than traditional materials in the production of pipes.

Read the full EPD report on polyethylene pipes from TEPPFA website.

Environmental impact

To make a fair comparison between different types of material it is necessary to assess and compare all of the environmental impacts at each stage of a product or service’s life cycle.

“Environmental footprints” can be either adverse or beneficial. Adverse effects such as emitting greenhouse gases may arise in either the product’s production or disposal process; beneficial effects help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by saving energy whilst the product is in use. In terms of plastic pipes, the Life Cycle Analysis has shown that the environmental footprint for plastic pipe systems is significantly lower than that of traditional pipe materials.

Determining a product’s environmental footprint

A scientifically-based full Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the most widely accepted, standardised, method for fairly comparing the environmental impacts of different producst or service. This type of assessment typically involves systematically collecting and evaluating quantitative data on the inputs and outputs of material, energy and waste flows associated with a product over its entire life cycle. Therefore a whole range of processes need to be assessed to calculate overall impacts, beginning with the manufacturing of raw materials, to transforming them into products; continuing through the product’s transportation and installation, the product’s lifetime of use, and ultimately, the product’s disposal or re-processing at the end of life.

LCA assessments are published in the form of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) identifying a product’s overall environmental impact.

These Life Cycle Assessments were prepared by the internationally respected Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO), following ISO standard 14025 methodology. VITO’s findings were then independently validated by another respected sustainable development institute, Denkstatt GmbH in Austria.

The study involved collecting data on plastic pipe systems from companies covering more than 50% of the European market. Data for comparable alternative material piping systems (Concrete, Ductile Iron and Copper) was based on publicly available information.

Environmental Impact Criteria

The environmental impact of each pipe material was assessed against six different criteria across its full life cycle.

1) ‘Abiotic’ depletion: the over-extraction of minerals, fossil fuels and other non-living, non-renewable materials which can lead to exhaustion of natural resources.

2) Its ‘acidification’ potential: emissions, such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, from manufacturing processes, result in acid rain which harms soil, water supplies, human and animal organisms, and the ecosystem.

3) The potential for ‘Eutrophication’: which arises from of the over-fertilisation of water and soil by nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorous). This speeds up plant growth and kills off animal life in lakes and waterways.

4) Its potential for contributing to ‘global warming’ (its carbon footprint): the insulating effect of greenhouse gases - CO2 and methane - in the atmosphere is a major contributor to global warming, affecting both human health and that of the ecosystem in which we live.

5) The potential for ‘Ozone-depletion’: depletion of the ozone layer in the atmosphere caused by the emission of chemical foaming and cleaning agents allows the passage of greater levels of UV from the sun, causing skin cancer and reducing crop yields.

6) The potential for ‘photochemical oxidation’: where the photochemical reaction of sunlight with primary air pollutants such as volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides leads to chemical smogs that affect human health, food crops and the ecosystem in general.

Comparisons between different pipe systems

Different types of pipe systems require different types of performance characteristics. These are met by a range of different traditional materials and different classes of plastics. From this study, direct comparisons were made between polypropylene plastic pipes and ductile iron pipes in soil and waste pipe systems; polyethylene plastic pipes and ductile iron pipes in pressurised water distribution systems; three different types of PVC pipes and concrete pipes in non-pressure sewage systems; and cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) pipes and copper pipes in hot and cold solid wall systems.

The study was conclusive in favour of plastic pipe systems across the whole range of applications assessed.

The article is supplied by TEPPFA. More detailed information about EPDs for each class of plastics can be obtained by contacting TEPPFA at

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