Though mostly unfounded and unfair, plastics take a lot of “hits” in some environmental circles. It seems that castigating plastics as being bad for the environment is the “thing to do”. However, when you look into many of the allegations of plastics being bad for the environment, there is a lot of bad science and misplaced emotion involved. It’s easy to blame plastics when other options that are PERCEIVED as being better for the environment are available. However, often times, perception is not reality.
Take PEX (crosslinked polyethylene) pipe as an example—the type of pipe that is used in hot and cold water plumbing, residential fire sprinkler, and radiant floor heating systems. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that because the plastic raw material from which it is made is derived from non-renewable resources (e.g., natural gas or crude oil), it must be a poor choice from an environmental standpoint. Copper must be better, right? No. The process by which copper is mined, refined, transformed into end products, and then used—such as pipe—is very energy intensive, using a great deal of non-renewable energy during its lifetime. In fact, if a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is undertaken for both PEX and copper, PEX fares much better. Simply put: during its lifetime, a PEX-based system has a lower overall energy content than a similar system made from copper.
PEX pipe is a highly durable, long-lasting building product. If alternative uses for crude oil and natural gas are considered, it is readily obvious that such “feedstocks” are far better off employed for the manufacture of durable goods (such as pipe) rather than being consumed (i.e., burned up) in “single-use” applications such as gasoline or diesel fuel for vehicle engines.
The end-uses for PEX are also highly attractive and beneficial from a sustainability standpoint. PEX plumbing systems help ensure clean, healthy water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Also, PEX plumbing systems can help conserve water compared to metallic piping systems, contributing to both water and energy savings. Residential fire sprinklers can be incorporated as part of a PEX plumbing system, adding even more sustainability attributes. After all, what is more sustainable than saving lives or preventing injury to occupants, and preventing destruction of property by home fires saves valuable building materials. Also, by quickly extinguishing fires, sprinklers can reduce noxious smoke generation and minimize run-off of polluted water. When fire spinklers are installed, higher housing “density” can be employed, thus reducing land use.
Radiant floor heating and cooling systems typically employ PEX tube. Radiant floor heating and cooling systems are renowned for their energy efficiency. Also, from a sustainability standpoint, radiant systems improve the thermal comfort of building occupants and minimize air-borne pollutants. Combined with the lack of noise generated by radiant heating systems, such installations have a positive effect on IEQ (Indoor Environmental Quality).
PEX-based systems can contribute to a sustainable built environment. Not only can they contribute to energy and water savings, but they can also enhance the human living environment.
Dale Stroud is Uponor North America's senior director of Offerings/Marketing. With more than 30 years of experience in the building and construction industry, he's the go-to-guy for just about everything. Dale manages strategic planning, business development, market research, and codes and standards as well as the company’s greenbuilding activities for North America.