Plastic pipe producers are in a good position to meet increasing demand as U.S. cities update drinking water and wastewater systems, but that's also bringing a new wave of criticism from environmental groups as $55 billion of federal money is spent from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Beyond Plastics, a Bennington, Vt.-based group headed by a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator, began its push in April to build up a public outcry against use of taxpayer dollars on some plastic products.
So far, the group has published a 56-page report — "The Perils of PVC Plastic" — that calls for use of copper and recycled copper for the drinking water service lines connecting water mains under streets to household taps.
Some members also have written letters to the editors of their community newspapers.
In addition, Beyond Plastics has come out against a proposed PVC packaging and pipe plant in Lockport, N.Y., pointing to the recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, as its reason to oppose the project.
Residents of Lake Wales, Fla., also are pointing to the incident as they raise concerns about a high density polyethylene pipe plant proposed by Hilliard, Ohio-based Advanced Drainage Systems Inc. that will create at least 65 jobs.
In response, plastic pipe trade groups are fielding some questions from end users, but in fact are seeing an increase in demand for products such as HDPE, cross-linked PE (PEX) and PVC, which cost less and are easier to install than legacy materials used in water and wastewater systems.
"We've received requests for information rebutting some of the outlandish claims made in the Beyond Plastics report but have seen no change in the use of PVC pipe from water and sewer utilities," Bruce Hollands, executive director of the Irving, Texas-based Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association, said in an email.
In the meantime, Hollands said, "Uni-Bell has been coordinating the PVC pipe industry's response and collaborating with suppliers and other organizations to get the facts out about PVC pipe's health and safety benefits, low carbon footprint and best-in-class environmental attributes."
The Beyond Plastics campaign hasn't resulted in any backlash to date for producers of PE pipe, which also is used for service lines and other parts of water and wastewater systems, according to David Fink, president of the Irving, Texas-based Plastics Pipe Institute.
"Despite these negative campaigns based on false information, we have seen an increase in sales," Fink said. "Plastic piping systems have earned their right to belong. We have the lowest initial cost and the lowest life cycle cost. A lot of municipalities don't have much funding so cost effectiveness plays a key role. Plastic pipes are easy and lightweight to install, so you use less heavy equipment for the installation process. There's a good overall picture we can paint for plastic piping moving forward and that's why more designers, owners and contractors are selecting our materials."
Plastic products continue to make up the largest share of pipe being installed, but Isabel Kezman, a municipal water market analyst with Boston-based Bluefield Research, said prolonged supply chain issues and higher prices have driven some preference away from PVC to other materials with better supply availability or price stability.
"In addition to general pandemic-related supply disruption, plastic resin production was significantly impacted by the Texas winter storm in February 2021. That caused a plastic shortage that took the market a decent amount of time to recover from, driving prices for plastic pipes and fittings up by double or triple digits over the past few years," Kezman said.
"On the HDPE side, there's been a growing demand for it vs. PVC as well as iron and steel due to HDPE manufacturers managing supply constraints better and having lower pricing," Kezman said.