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Plastics in Construction Industry

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

The advantages of recycling for the environment in a perspective

Plastics are used in a growing number of applications in the building and construction sector. This sector in Europe consumes about 10 million tonnes of plastics per year (20% of total plastics consumption in Europe), making it the second largest application for plastics after packaging. Plastic pipes, for example, account for the majority of all new pipe installations, with well over 50% of annual tonnage. And this percentage continues to grow.

Although plastics are not always visible in buildings, they are used in a wide and growing range of applications including insulation, piping, fixtures and interior design. This growth is mainly due to the unique characteristics of plastics, which they include:

  • Durability and corrosion resistance

The durability of plastics makes them the ideal solution for applications such as window frames and pipes. In addition, their anti-corrosion properties allow them to have an impressive lifetime of more than 100 years for plastic pipes and 50 years for underground and outdoor cables.

  • Insulation

Plastics provide effective insulation from cold and heat, prevent energy loss and allow energy savings in homes, while reducing noise pollution.

  • Cost efficiency

The production of plastic components, even when customized, often has a lower cost than traditional materials.

  • Hygiene

Plastic pipes are the ideal solution for the hygienic and safe transport of water. Plastics are the optimal choice for domestic surfaces and hygienic floor coverings as they are easy to clean and waterproof without counting the thousands of applications for food and medical use.

  • Sustainability

Cost-efficient production, easy installation and the durability of plastics make it possible to save resources. In a typical home, it is estimated that the amount of energy used to produce insulation products is recovered after only one year of use. In addition, these plastics can be reused, recycled or converted into energy.

  • Innovation

Plastics inspire architects to create buildings with innovative design, features and dimensions. In addition, the rapid pace of innovation in plastics helps to continuously reduce costs and increase building efficiency.

  • Easy installation, use and maintenance

Plastics objects are easy to install, use and maintain due to their light weight. In reality, maintenance can often be overlooked. In addition, the flexibility of plastics means that plastic pipes can withstand ground movement.

  • Fire safety

Many plastic products used in the building and construction industry are appreciated for their fire resistance. Smoke detectors, alarms and automated fire protection systems are largely made of plastics and the success of PVC, the leading polymer in the sector, is strongly linked to its intrinsic fire resistance characteristics.

Plastic waste in construction industry

Up to now we have seen the advantages and therefore the reasons for the massive use of plastics in construction but it is also interesting to reflect on the amount of plastic waste from the sector. If about one fifth of the total plastic produced each year is used in construction, the amount of plastic waste is lower. This is due to the fact that components made of plastic and used in construction, such as pipes, profiles and insulators, can have a very long useful life compared to plastic objects used in other sectors.

This means that when the building industry absorbs a lot of the plastic produced, it produces waste much more slowly. The fact remains, of course, that all the plastic that is inserted into a building, for example, will have to be disposed of one day. Here too, the first step is to choose recyclable plastics, so as to encourage a process of circular economy.

In order of quantitative importance, the plastic waste produced by the building industry is mainly insulating, followed by pipes and fittings, floors and windows. The most common types of plastics are polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyester (PS), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), resins and polyurethanes. Finally, the positive trend described above is also confirmed in the construction sector: more and more waste is being diverted from landfills for recycling. Recycled plastic can be used to make many objects and building components such as furniture, floors, pipes, grills for the ground, perforated draining tiles for exteriors, insulation and so on.

There are also innovative proposals, here are some examples of products made of recycled plastic:

  • According to a study by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the addition of recycled plastic to concrete makes the product more resistant and environmentally friendly. After a special treatment, the researchers tried to add PET to a cement mix, which proved to be 20% more resistant.

  • The first house made of recycled plastic bricks is in Colombia, a country where the level of sorted waste is very low. The logic is that of Lego and sees the construction of bricks assembled, for a building of 40 square meters, in a single week. In this case, plastic materials have been dissolved in special moulds to obtain bricks and the designer has patented the system.

Another example is the prototype of a shelter made of recycled plastic, designed and produced by Corepla and the NGO Waste Free Ocean. WFO collects the plastic from the ocean and rivers, it is then mixed with the plastic collected in the waste collectors, then processed and transformed into panels. These panels are used to build affordable homes and shelters for local communities who have lost their homes in the event of natural disasters, thus contributing to the well-being of the population in less fortunate areas.

One of these shelters was exhibited at Ecomondo 2018, an event in which the green economy is always given a high profile. The waste used was partly taken from the river Po and was used to make panels, which were then easily assembled in a short time. At the end of the fair the panels, which are quickly assembled and disassembled, were sent to Athens, Greece, with the aim of serving as a demonstration project to help refugees in the area.

The circular economy in construction industry

Recycling and reusing materials in the building industry has become more than just a reality. A practice that promotes sustainability and reduces the environmental impact of our buildings through the search for increasingly new and effective solutions.

A building can be 'respectful' of the environment in a number of ways, for example by carefully selecting the materials with which it is to be constructed. All raw materials and building products, in fact, depending on the point of collection, how they are transported, processed and then disposed of, have a certain impact on the environment. In fact, every operation that man performs on them is a cause of energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

For this reason, the best solution is an approach that looks at the entire life cycle of a product (from the cradle to the grave), so as to allow a complete and truthful environmental balance. It is with this in mind that we can see a great opportunity for improvement at the end of its life: offering a second life to a product or material.

There are so many materials that already today, once they reach the end of their life cycle, are intended for recycling and reuse.

This is important because in Italy about a third of the waste produced comes from the construction sector. An idea of the current situation is given by the Recycle Observatory Report, an initiative promoted by Legambiente that offers a picture of the use of recycled materials. Also from a regulatory point of view, the drive to recycle building waste is increasingly strong and has set itself the goal of being able to achieve recycling levels in the coming years equal to 70% of the waste produced. The advantages that the green economy offers are many, such as the reduction of the withdrawal of raw material and CO2 emissions.

Aggregates, bricks, plastics, rubber, glass, wood, old bituminous membranes, textile fibres, paper, cardboard and much more can be recycled. Technological development today makes it possible to use increasingly efficient processes, which not only guarantee excellent results in terms of the performance of the materials obtained, but also considerable energy savings. In fact, there are also increasing examples of buildings where materials have been used that have become new products from waste; here is an example.

EcoARK, Taiwan

This building, located in Taipei, is an iconic example of the potential of recycling in construction.

The building was built with 1.5 million recycled plastic bottles, designed by the architect Arthur Huang and Miniwiz, a start up that bases its business on the recycling of waste. This is an example of the application of the four Rs principle: Reduce, Recover, Reuse and Recycle. EcoARK is a pavilion that hosts events and fairs of various kinds, nine storeys high and made of recycled plastic bricks. It is a resistant material, which has allowed the construction of a building not only sustainable, but also safe. The building is transparent, with facades fixed to a steel structure. The modules made of recycled bricks have a texture that recalls (specifically) the bottom of a bottle. To make EcoARK even more sustainable, the photovoltaic system on the roof allows the building to function.


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