The plumbing and heating industry has been using plastic at an alarming rate for many years – ever since polybutylene began to be used in plumbing systems in the late 1970’s. But when we rip out plastic piping systems and replace them with new ones, do we stop to think where they might end up?
The reality is, plastic pipes often end up in landfill or on beaches. In fact, statistics show that 40% of plastic used by the construction industry is sent to landfill, showing how much our industry needs to change in terms of adopting recyclable materials and using more sustainable products.
Evaluating plastic recycling
Despite industry claims that plastic is recyclable, presently, of the 8.3bn tonnes of virgin plastic produced worldwide, only 9% has been recycled.
This is because the recycling process for plastic is an expensive, complicated, and energy-intensive process. Not only this, but after the recycling process, you are left with a lower quality, weaker plastic than you began with, meaning that recycling has a detrimental effect on the quality of the new product.
So, what is happening to all the plastic that isn’t being recycled? 40% is said to end up in landfill and it’s estimated that by 2050, 12bn tonnes of plastic waste will be sitting in landfill sites. Additionally, 19% of plastic waste is simply dumped in countries overseas.
Choosing sustainable plumbing materials
With plastic not being recycled as it should, what does this mean for copper in the plumbing and heating industry? Does the recycling process for copper have the same detrimental effects on the environment and the product as plastic recycling?
The answer is, no. Copper as a material is 100% infinitely recyclable and its properties and quality do not deteriorate in the recycling process. In many cases, copper from old and redundant pipework can be recovered, melted, and cast into new products with the same level of quality, making it an extremely sustainable product.
The recycling process for copper is also extremely sustainable. Recycling copper, in comparison to mining the raw material, uses 85% less energy and, in Europe, around 50% of copper demand is met by recycling, as well as 30% of demand globally. This demonstrates how copper plays a crucial part in the circular economy, proven even further by the fact that 65% of all copper that has ever been mined is still in circulation, ready to use.