Copper pipes vs plastic pipes for plumbing

The debate surrounding copper pipe and plastic alternatives has been ongoing for many years, with plastic becoming increasingly prevalent in the built environment in recent years. Now, with the COP26 summit and the Sustainable Innovation Forum highlighting the need to educate people on sustainable construction, the topic of copper vs. plastic has once again become a talking point.

The construction industry is a major contributor to waste – it generated around 62% of total UK waste in 2018 – and with many contractors within the industry opting to use non-recyclable plastic, most of this waste is incinerated, landfilled, or exported.

With the Government setting a number of new sustainability targets to the construction industry, now is a great time for us to turn to copper as a more sustainable and responsible material.

Copper metal 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 which 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 fact, copper pipes are well placed to complement the government’s drive to install sustainable heat pumps in homes across the UK as part of its pledge to tackle climate change.

In contrast, plastic plumbing pipes are manufactured from many different types of plastic and all of them pose the same environmental problem. Most plastics are unrecyclable, despite what the plastic industry claims, and the use of plastic is fast becoming an environmental crisis. It’s time to put an end to the plastic greenwash and challenge the myth that plastic has a circular, end of life economy.

One of the first plastic alternatives commonly used for plumbing systems was polybutylene, which was common for plumbing systems from the late 1970s. While this plastic 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. In comparison, copper has been widely used for decades and continues to be the pro-plumber’s choice to this day.

Different types of pipes used in plumbing

There’s a range of factors to consider when choosing the best type of pipe to use in plumbing and construction. Here’s a breakdown of 4 common types of plastic and how their properties compare to copper pipes.

Copper pipes

Known for its exceptional durability, resistance to corrosion, and a multitude of other benefits, copper pipes can last for decades and are 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.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

PVC 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 high 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. When used for plumbing, it can’t be directly connected to a water heater, as they require 18-inches 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. It is one of many types of plastic that has been flagged for contamination caused by thermal degradation, and often affects taste and odour of drinking water.

Chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC)

Common in industrial plumbing, CPVC plastic 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 plumbing pipes that need to be outside or underground, such as water mains, which is not the case for copper tubes.

Multi-layer plastic pipes

Multi-layer 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. Like many plastics, the outer coating can be damaged by UV rays which reduces its use to indoor only.

The benefits of copper are unmatched

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 construction industry, particularly when meeting new challenges that the government has set to build more sustainable buildings and meeting climate targets through environmentally friendly construction and engineering.

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, domestic, and hospital 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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