Australian plastic pipe - the sustainable product of choice for Australia’s future water needs

Written by  14 June 2015
Published in Pipeline Solutions
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Plastic pipe is now the material of choice for servicing most of Australia’s current and future water needs. It may surprise you that in the cities of Australia, plastic pipe provides around 85 per cent of the water-services related infrastructure that supports our daily lives.

Plastic pipe products made in Australia are manufactured and installed with the interests and needs of present and future generations in mind, with plastic pipe having an expected life span of more than 100 years.

Increasingly, the focus of our industry is on using fewer raw materials and less energy to produce a product that is as good as, or better than, its predecessors. There are a variety of plastics materials to choose from, and they possess different material properties that dictate which systems best suit each application.

Inside buildings

When it comes to plastic pipe, most people immediately think of the plastic pipe systems around their homes – polyvinyl chloride (PVC) drain waste and vent systems, and stormwater pipe.

An increasing number of Australians would also recognise pipes made from cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) and polybutylene (PB) that are used for hot and cold water pipes inside their homes.

PVC pipes have been used extensively for drain waste and vent applications inside buildings for more than 50 years. Their light weight and rigidity make them ideal for these gravity pipe systems. Couple that with a simple, effective jointing system that is very cost-effective, and you will begin to understand why these pipe systems are found in practically every building.

PEX and PB pipes are specifically formulated for both hot and cold water plumbing applications. Again, these are cost-effective systems that match simple jointing to designs that use fewer fittings and provide installations that are free from water hammer noise.

These systems not only deliver drinking water and remove wastewater, but they will also perform this task virtually maintenance-free for the life of the building.

Infrastructure pipelines

What many people may fail to appreciate is that every major utility supplying critical services to homes and businesses relies heavily on the long-term performance of plastic pipe systems. Australia’s water distribution network has for many years depended more on plastic for pipe systems than on any other material. The performance data from Australia’s major water utilities clearly confirms that the best-performing pressure pipe system is PVC, followed by polyethylene (PE). Water and wastewater utilities now use more plastic pipe systems to deliver clean drinking water and then safely remove wastewater than any other pipe material.

It’s not just urban utilities that take advantage of plastics. In rural and regional Australia, for irrigation projects, and for stock and domestic networks, such as the 8500-kilometre Wimmera Mallee Pipeline System, it is plastics that are without doubt the material of choice.

The materials commonly found in pipe systems for utilities are PVC, PE and polypropylene (PP).

The most commonly used engineering plastic for pipe applications is PVC. PVC has been used for infrastructure pipes in Australia for around 50 years in both pressure and non-pressure applications. PVC is the best-performing pressure water pipe system in the country, based on CSIRO analysis of the performance data from the Australian water agencies. PVC is also the most commonly used material for sewer pipe systems. In all of these applications, the pipes’ resistance to the corrosive effects of the soil that they are buried in, and the effects of the water and wastewater that they transport, are key elements to their success. Combine this with structural integrity and a simple, effective jointing system, and you can appreciate why these systems perform so well.

PE is another engineering plastic commonly used for pipe in utility applications. While PE is often installed in traditional open-trench conditions, its welded joint system and its ability to be produced in long coils means that these systems are well suited to trenchless installation methods like directional drilling and slip lining. These long, continuous lengths also allow them to take advantage of innovative installation methods, such as plough-in. Trenchless techniques are finding increasing favour, not only because of their cost advantages, but also because they minimise disruption to traffic, pedestrian access and impact to the environment with their small construction footprint.

Finally, there is PP, which, for Australia in the context of utility services, is used primarily for non-pressure applications, like sewer and stormwater drainage. The lightweight, simple and effective jointing, and excellent corrosion resistance are the attractions of PP systems.

Green building and sustainability

The more we study the life cycle of materials, the more it becomes clear that, in the case of pipelines, it is the plastics that are genuinely the most sustainable compared to alternative options that use metals like cast iron, steel and copper, and other materials, such as concrete. Life cycle analysis (LCA) looks at every aspect – from the raw material to the finished product – and can include installation and operation, along with end-of-life aspects, such as recycling.

LCA forms the basis for comparing materials, and is used extensively in a variety of sustainability rating tools. The Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA) IS Rating Tool and the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) Green Star tool both use LCA as a key elements in their rating systems. LCA comparisons between plastics and alternative pipe materials repeatedly show that plastic pipe systems are consistently the best performers. Peer-reviewed studies completed in Australia and Europe looking at the life cycle of drainage and pressure pipes found that plastics were by far the best performers1, 2.

While many people would not find it surprising that PE and PP outperform the alternative pipe materials in terms of sustainability, there may be some who would be surprised to learn that PVC does exactly the same. There remain many misconceptions associated with PVC pipe, and we need to dispel a couple of the most common ones.

PVC pipe contains no plasticisers (including phthalates). PVC pipe in Australia contains no heavy metal stabilisers – so, no lead. Both of these aspects are mandated in Australian product standards for PVC pipe – the only national product standards for PVC pipe worldwide to do so.

The Australian plastic pipe industry is committed to responsible sourcing, manufacturing and recycling of PVC. Our industry has embedded the Best Environmental Practice (BEP) requirements developed by the GBCA in the Australian product standards to make compliance, procurement and identification simpler and more effective.


1 ‘Adaptation of the USGBC TSAC Report for Relevance to Australian DWV Pipe’ Nigel Howard, Branz 2008

2 A suite of Environmental Product Declarations commissioned by TEPPFA and undertaken by independent group the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO) to measure the environmental footprint of various plastic pipe systems based on life-cycle assessment. The work was validated by the Denkstatt sustainability consultancy in Austria. Those most relevant to infrastructure pipe options in Australia are:

  • Polyethylene pipe systems for water distribution (PE)
  • Bi-oriented polyvinylchloride MRS 45 MPa pipe system for water distribution (PVC-O MRS 45 MPa)
  • PVC solid-wall sewer pipe systems for drainage and sewage (PVC solid wall)
  • Polyvinylchloride multilayer sewer pipe system with a foamed core (PVC Multilayer Foam)
  • Polyvinylchloride (PVC-U) multilayer sewer pipe system with a core of foam and recyclates (PVC Multilayer Foam + Recyclates)
  • Polypropylene structured (twin) wall sewer pipe system (PP sewer twin wall).

All of the raw material requirements and waste management improvements as part of the BEP requirements are certified by independent third-party certification bodies.

When it comes to innovation and material efficiency, Australia is one of the major developers and users of oriented PVC pressure pipe (PVCO), which uses less than half the raw material to achieve the same pressure capability as comparable unplasticised PVC (PVCU) pressure pipe – PVCU still forms the basis of pressure pipe in the United States. PVCO also has significantly improved fatigue and impact resistance over the standard PVCU material, so you can expect better overall performance. In terms of non-pressure pipe in Australia, we use material-efficient multi-layer and structured wall pipe to achieve a 20–30 per cent reduction in material usage while maintaining the same operational performance and life expectancy as traditional PVC pipes. In short, we now do much more with less.

On the subject of recycling, all the common plastic pipe systems (PVC, PE and PP) are readily recycled, and are being recycled now. Practically all post-industrial waste is recycled, and we are also recycling post-consumer pipe waste. For example, more than 650 tonnes of post-consumer PVC pipe, mostly sourced from demolition sites or construction waste, was recycled by the industry last year. Because of the nature of the material and the innovative product range, the recyclate is used to manufacture new pipe with the same life and performance expectations as pipe made from virgin material. Iplex Pipelines has recently opened a recycling centre in Sydney’s west, where contractors can return plastic pipe for recycling. Other manufacturers like Pipemakers and Vinidex offer take-back schemes. Facilities and schemes such as these facilitate the easy return of waste pipe and intercept the waste before it becomes mixed and contaminated, making the recycling of post-consumer pipe waste more viable. Recycling is part of the Australian plastic pipe industry commitment to sustainable practices.

The Plastics Industry Pipe Association of Australia (PIPA) has worked with key sustainability groups, such as the GBCA, for almost a decade. Romilly Madew (Chief Executive of the GBCA) recently used work done with PIPA as an example of a collaborative success story in the green building sector. In the August 2013 edition of the GBCA Newsletter, Ms Madew observed that: ‘The trust and transparency developed during the process of collaborating with PIPA gave us the confidence to make some significant changes, as well as the opportunity to examine our industry in a way not thought possible’. This comment was in the context of the development of ‘Best Environmental Practice PVC’, and highlights how effective our collaboration has been, and continues to be, with the GBCA.

PIPA also co-sponsored development of the ISCA IS Rating Tool. PIPA is a member of ISCA and its Materials Working Group.

Far from resting on its laurels, the Australian plastic pipe industry is currently proactively taking key steps in further strengthening its environmental credentials, with a focus on increased transparency and third-party certification.

Sustainability underpins our industry’s relationships and credibility with our stakeholders – the most important of which is the broader community. While our achievements are considerable and measurable, we are committed to making further demonstrable improvements wherever and whenever possible. For further information on what PIPA is undertaking with regard to sustainability, please visit the PIPA website.

Conformance to standards

Many readers will be aware of the increasing focus and justified media interest in the issue of non-conforming products in the Australian marketplace. This concern is particularly acute in Australia’s building and construction sector. It potentially affects all product areas, including plastic pipe and fittings, and there can also be health and safety implications.

Australian-made plastic pipe manufactured by PIPA member companies not only meets all relevant Australian and International Standards, but also meets the strict regulatory requirements that are mandated through such schemes as WaterMark, which is administered by the Australian Building Codes Board and overseen by state regulators. Quality and safety are primary focus areas for the Australian plastic pipe industry.

Put simply, plastic pipe is an integral part of the water infrastructure of Australia. As such, it will responsibly service the future needs of Australians for many generations.

About PIPA: Our industry has long recognised that it needs to be focused and proactive in addressing Australia’s infrastructure challenges and opportunities. To do this effectively requires a coherent national voice. The Plastics Industry Pipe Association of Australia (PIPA) is the peak industry body representing the interests of Australia’s plastic pipes, fittings and raw material suppliers. We promote the correct use and installation of safe and environmentally responsible plastic pipe systems.

Details about any of these systems and links to the companies that supply them can be found on the PIPA website: www.pipa.com.au.

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