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Sustainable plumbing: PEX, Plastic or Copper: which is better?

In this article we discuss the sustainability benefits of plastic in comparison to copper.


Plastics are better than you think

copper pipe

You may have heard the recent commotion in the press recently about plastics and the damage they can cause to the environment. Whilst it will have an impact, it can in fact lead to a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and reduce food transportation costs by up to 50% (BPF,2018). This useful infographic below from the BPF clearly shows the benefits of plastics:

Not all plastics are the same

PEX desktop image
We must however be very careful, as not all plastics are the same. In fact, the predominant material used in construction is PEX. PEX is an acronym for crosslinked polyethylene, which is a flexible, durable plastic piping product used in the plumbing and underfloor heating market. Offering many sustainability benefits in comparison to materials such as copper PEX pipes can help developers, contractors and architects reach their BREAAM targets and build objectives.
We will be delving into some of the sustainability benefits below

What do the professionals say?

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Independent research has been conducted by The European Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association (TEPPFA) to determine whether copper is more sustainable than plastic. The data took into account factors such as exhaustion of natural resources, emissions from manufacturing processes, over-fertilisation of water and soil, global warming, ozone layer depletion and photochemical oxidation to formulate the Life Cycle Impact on the environment.

Depletion graph
Quick and Easy stress test
Overall, the results indicated that plastic pipe systems are less detrimental to the environment in comparison to traditional materials like copper. Specifically, the report stated that lightweight plastic piping products are expected to have lower environmental impacts during manufacturing compared with copper because lighter-weight products (i.e., PEX) reduce manufacturing, transportation and disposal burdens. The report also found that the energy consumed and overall impacts from manufacturing plastic pipe using common, low-temperature extrusion processes are but a small fraction of the already minimal environmental impacts of plastic pipe. In other words, plastic pipe extrusion processes are clean and low-impact operations.

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. And, copper piping systems can have a much shorter lifespan compared with PEX because of the corrosion and pinhole leaks that can happen with harsh water systems.

Long Term Strategy

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So how can a plastic product like PEX, which is derived from non-renewable energy sources be good for the environment?. Well if we consider the fact that these energy sources will be used to produce pipe, which can last for many years instead of fuel which only has a one time application i.e it will be burnt across a car journey.

And, PEX piping systems — whether for plumbing or underfloor heating— are all sustainable solutions in their own right. A flexible PEX plumbing system, for example, can bend around corners with each change of direction, instead of having to add a connection. What’s more, Uponor offer PEX pipes in a range of different quantities to assist you with the demand planning process.


Additionally, PEX offers better thermal conductivity and a thicker wall to keep water warm and is resistant to condensation – often a problem with PEX pipes.


uponor as partner
This article has shown that there are several factors to consider when determining whether a product is sustainable during the construction process. All of these factors must be taken into consideration during the building specification process and balanced with cost and performance related criteria when building a structure
We hope this article helps you make the right choice. If you would like to find out more, check out our PE-X Pipe and Plumbing Fittings products.