As plastic pipe producers wage an ongoing battle to supplant traditional materials, we should thank our lucky stars that one historic option is no longer in the picture.
Cardboard pipes treated with tar, once a popular construction material, have been failing after 50 or more years in the field, leading to some extremely distasteful results.
The Financial Post recently published an article examining the consequences when such failures occur in residential sewer systems. Many unsuspecting homeowners have faced a smelly disaster when cardboard-tar sewer pipes collapsed and leaked their contents into the front yards of their homes.
Modern building codes of course would not allow the use of such a fragile product but many homeowners are stuck with a legacy of messy and expensive problems. The city of Edmonton, Alberta, for example, estimated in 2011 that it would cost nearly $2 billion to replace the failure-prone pipes.
It may seem unfathomable to us now, but builders back then had their reasons to use cardboard-tar pipes in the years following World War II. Metal was in short supply and returning war veterans sparked a housing construction frenzy to house the upcoming “baby boom” generation.
So what seemed like a good idea at the time was, in hindsight, a ticking time bomb that might have been set off by the advent of automatic dishwashers that dump very hot water down drainage systems poorly built in the 1940s and 1950s.
Cardboard-tar pipes are a distant memory for some of us and for recent generations there is no memory of them at all. Such pipes were dubbed Orangeburg pipe after the now-defunct, dominant manufacturer of them, Orangeburg Manufacturing Co. in Orangeburg, N.Y. Their initial use dates to the 1800s when they were introduced to transport water, act as wire and cable conduits and to pump waste water from oil drilling sites.
After WWII Orangeburg pipe was made thicker and sturdier for sewer and drain uses, a bad decision that would haunt future homeowners.
We might laugh at the apparent lack of foresight when cardboard-tar pipes were specified for home construction, but each generation deals with problems seeded by previous generations. In my career I have witnessed the regrettable fallout from wrongheadedness of predecessors. Asbestos and fluorocarbon blowing agents are a few examples that come to mind.
In plastics we probably dodged a bullet when blow molded polyacrylonitrile soft drink bottles were yanked before widespread use in the 1970s. Monsanto and Coca-Cola were testing Lopac brand PAN bottles to capitalize on the resin's barrier and creep properties and apparent recyclability when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suspected possible residues of acrylonitrile monomer, a potential carcinogen, mutagen and teratogen. The demise of the Lopac bottle in 1976 eventually led to widespread adoption of the PET bottle.
We might be smug about our stringent testing and performance protocols compared with the past, but we shouldn't believe we can foresee all the consequences of rushing a product to market. As novelist and Nobel laureate Anatole France put it: “It is the certainty that they possess the truth that makes men cruel.”
(Special thanks to Michael Lauzon, Plastics News' long-time Toronto-based correspondent, for today's guest post.)