Getting your penny’s worth with copper

One way a plumbing business can become more environmentally friendly is to choose sustainable materials, like copper, which is infinitely recyclable and is durable enough to hold up over the long haul. Andrew Surtees from the Copper Sustainability Partnership looks at the benefits of copper. 

Over the last few months, both the COP26 summit and the Sustainable Innovation Forum have highlighted the need to educate people on sustainable plumbing and construction. The construction industry is a major contributor to waste and, with the population of the UK increasing, and the growing pressure to build housing quickly and cheaply, many professionals in the industry are turning to cheap, unsustainable materials.

But with the government setting a number of new sustainability targets to the industry, now is a great time for plumbing professionals to turn to copper piping as a more sustainable and responsible material.

Changing times  

Copper began replacing galvanised steel in plumbing systems back in the 1970s. Today, it is the most common metal used in plumbing systems because it holds various properties that make it the perfect material to supply water, heating, and gas to homes and commercial buildings. Not only this, but it also has the added benefit of being infinitely recyclable, so it is well suited to address public and government concerns on the impact the construction industry has on the environment. 

In contrast, plastic pipes are manufactured from many different types of plastic. One of the first plastic alternatives used for plumbing systems was polybutylene, which became commonly used from the late 1970s. While this proved popular back then, it was largely replaced due to its faults and inadequacies in keeping up with modern advances, with a tendency to split and leak.

Most plastic pipes pose the same environmental problem in that they are unrecyclable, despite industry claims, and the use of plastic is fast becoming an environmental crisis. It’s time to put an end to the plastics greenwash and challenge the myth that this material has a circular, end of life economy. 

Choose carefully 

There are a range of factors to consider when choosing the best type of pipe to use in your plumbing project, so here’s a breakdown of four common types of plastic piping and how their properties compare to copper pipes. 

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC): This material is a combination of plastic and vinyl and is a popular choice for mains water lines. However, it is not as flexible as some other types of plastic and, because it warps and can melt at temperatures hotter than 140°F, it cannot be used for supplying hot water or heating to buildings. 

Cross-linked polyethylene (PEX): Unlike copper, PEX cannot be recycled at all as it doesn’t melt down like other types of plastic. What’s more, when used for plumbing, it can’t be directly connected to a water heater, as they require 18in of a heat resistant material (usually copper) to be directly connected to the water heater before it is connected further down the line.

In addition to this, PEX is only suitable for indoor use as it can be damaged by sunlight and it is one of many types of plastic that has been flagged for contamination caused by thermal degradation, often affecting the taste and odour of drinking water. 

Chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC): Common in industrial plumbing, CPVC pipes are PVC pipes which are treated with chlorine. While this makes pipes better at handling hotter temperatures and pressures than standard PVC, this plastic tends to crack when subject to colder temperatures and will break down when exposed to sunlight for extended periods of time. This makes it an unsuitable material to use for pipes that need to be outside or underground, such as water mains, unlike copper which is perfectly suited to this use. 

Multi-Layer Plastic Pipes (MLP): These pipes are made using two thin layers of plastic – typically a form of polyethylene (PE) – with a layer of aluminium in between. This material is complex in terms of recycling, as it is virtually impossible to separate both materials, even if the plastic was reusable. Additionally, like many plastics, the outer coating can be damaged by UV rays, which reduces its use to indoor only. 

Copper bottomed

Known for its exceptional durability, resistance to corrosion, and a multitude of other benefits, copper pipes can last for decades and are also anti-microbial. Better yet, they are infinitely recyclable and do not lose any of their benefits during the recycling process. With its ability to withstand extreme temperatures, pressures, and exposure to UV and oxygen, copper can be used for a range of purposes and across a multitude of environments, without its integrity being altered.

There is simply no match for traditional copper piping when it comes to versatility, durability, and sustainability. Using one material which ticks all requirements is a vital consideration within the plumbing industry, particularly when meeting climate targets and new challenges that the government has set to build more sustainable buildings.

Professional plumbers are aware of the properties and benefits that copper has over its plastic alternatives, which position the material as the most sustainable, high performing choice for industrial and domestic environments. There are clear reasons why copper pipes are better than plastic pipes and, with sustainability at the forefront of conversations, now is the time for more industry professionals to join the Copper Revolution.

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