The plastics challenge in the construction industry

Friday 6th December 2019
 
The plastics challenge in the construction industry

Reducing plastic waste is something we all have a responsibility to do. So when you consider 2.5million metres of plastic pipe was used by one, relatively small, underfloor heating contractor last year, just what is the scale of the plastics challenge for the construction industry and how are the choices we’re making impacting the environment? Ashley Cooper, Managing Director of WMS Underfloor Heating, discusses.

“Those 2.5million metres of plastic pipe were installed by us and was actually PERT (polyethylene raised temperature), a sustainable material which can be melted down safely and reused. But not everyone’s as responsible as we aspire to be, and when you consider the majority of our operations are concentrated just in the South East, the task of tackling the use of plastics and plastic waste in the wider construction industry, is colossal.

“It’s widely published that the UK generates around 5 million tonnes of plastic waste each year and it’s concerning to know the construction industry is the second largest producer of plastic (23%) – plastic packaging manufacturers hold the top spot. The amount of plastic waste generated by the industry is recorded at around 50,000 tonnes per year. This waste is contributing to the news reports and documentaries which we’re seeing more and more of on our TV screens: Sea life tangled in plastic and vast swathes of ocean covered in ‘man made’ islands. But one of the most damaging elements of this waste is harder to see: Microplastics. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it just breaks down into smaller pieces – smaller than 5mm in diameter, and hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastic waste in our oceans is made up of this. Researchers don’t yet fully understand the impact this micro waste is having on our environment, but evidence suggests we might already be breathing these particles in and consuming them in our diets.

“One of the reasons why there doesn’t seem to be any particular urgency to reduce the levels of plastic waste which are generated by the construction industry is possibly due to a lack of financial incentive. But the solution isn’t as ‘straightforward’ as that - some plastics are actually needed in construction. Countless products and materials are manufactured from durable, long-lasting plastics because they offer superior performance levels, can be easily manipulated into different shapes and designs, and they deliver a level of technical excellence with which other materials can’t compete. But we shouldn’t be specifying plastics purely based on their performance or price, it’s the specific make-up and environmental impact of these durable plastics which needs to find its place on our specification picking list.

“Take a look at underfloor heating: The plastic piping used is typically either PEX (crosslinked polyethylene) or PERT. PERT, as I explained earlier, is a sustainable material which can be melted down safely and recycled. PEX pipework on the other hand, is used by the majority of the industry, but contains toxins which can only be burnt, posing further environmental concerns, or buried due to the molecular cross-linking involved in its manufacturing process. It’s therefore a non reusable material and when discarded, would be adding to that 50,000 tonnes of plastic waste.

“But do the two products offer the same level of performance? Aspiring to use sustainable products is all well and good, but if the technology is inferior, specifying to a social values agenda may not stack up.

“It’s argued that PEX is the preferred product for heating systems as it’s engineered to withstand higher temperatures than PERT (93oC as opposed to 82oC), but UFH systems never exceed 60oC – in fact they usually run at just 45oC. The main difference between PEX and PERT though is PERT’s NSF-rfh rating. This means it’s approved for use in radiant heat systems because of its EVOH oxygen barrier – something which safeguards radiant heat systems from oxidation and extends their life.

“So, when it comes to choosing the right plastic piping for your project, as with anything it depends what you want to achieve. As far as we’re concerned though, given its environmental credentials and because it doesn’t need to operate at particularly high temperatures, PERT is the only pipe we specify for our UFH customers.”

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