Environmental Sustainability of Plastics in Construction
The increasing popularity of plastics in construction is due to many factors: their performance, durability, weathering resistance, low maintenance, cost-effectiveness, light weight and design flexibility. These qualities make them ideal products for construction and an essential component of the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Many different types of plastics exist with different performance levels and properties, meeting the exact needs of different applications, from corrosion resistance to thermal insulation.
How do plastics contribute to environmental sustainability in the construction sector?
An ideal construction product
Today, the buildings sector is both the largest user of energy (40%) and consequently the largest emitter of CO2 (36%) in the EU.
Constructing and renovating buildings with high energy efficiency in mind is a must. The biggest contributor to a building’s environmental impact is by far the consumption of fossil energy during the use phase.
Energy efficient buildings should last long, require low maintenance, and ensure the overall structural and thermal performance is maintained over time, securing a low energy demand and consequently low CO2 emissions.
This is exactly what plastic products tend to do. As such, they need very little energy or few resources to ensure they continue to perform as expected over their lifetime. They keep buildings dry and warm, ensuring comfortable living and working spaces. This is further complemented by their cost effectiveness over the building life-cycle.
These attributes make them ideal construction products. In fact, 20% of all plastic produced is used in construction – the second largest application for this material, higher than its use in vehicles or electronic equipment, for example.
The materials in a building can generally be expected to last 30-50 years without change, but plastics can last longer. For example, many PVC pipes installed more than 50 years ago continue to function as well as ever today, minimising the need to manufacture new products.
Utilising plastics construction products usually ensures ease of installation, high performance and low risk of failure, meaning the long-term performance will not be affected by compression, infiltration or any other physical degradation.
These are key design and specification criteria since a degradation of the performance over time, in particular the thermal performance, would significantly compromise the environmental sustainability of the building.
The durability of these plastic products also means that they can often be recovered for future use or kept in place. For example, when an additional layer of insulation is applied on the facade or flat roof of a building to improve the energy efficiency, it is common practice to retain the first layer as it is still performing well.
Plastics, including those used in construction, can also be re-used, recycled or recovered at the end of their service life. Across the EU, more than half of the plastics in construction waste are diverted from landfills, either through recycling or through waste-to-energy plants. Find out more on our member PlasticsEurope’s website, as well as in their brochure “Plastics – Architects of modern and sustainable buildings”.
The EU’s current environmental policies aim to reduce the amount of materials consumed, prolong their use, and/or eventually recycle these materials, promoting a ‘circular economy’ approach. Due to their unique properties, polymers play an important role in achieving this goal.
For example, when we look at the lifetime use of plastics in construction, we see that the energy saved by these products in the use phase far outweighs the energy used in their manufacture. In fact, when in use, insulation materials like phenolic, PUR/PIR, EPS or XPS can save more than 200 times the energy used in the production process. Find out more about how these materials can boost the energy efficiency of buildings.
In addition to these properties, phenolic, PUR/PIR, EPS or XPS insulation is often thinner than the alternatives. This can reduce the overall size of a building or allow for buildings with more indoor space and daylight. It also means that more square metres of insulation can be transported in fewer deliveries, leading to less transport emissions.
In general, plastics construction products are lighter than alternatives, using a lower quantity of material for the same application, which means fewer resources are needed in the manufacturing process and less waste will be created at the end of the product life.
Taken together, plastic’s flexibility, durability, light-weight and performance make it the sustainable choice for construction. Using these materials is essential if Europe is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It is also essential if we are to achieve a more resource efficient, circular economy. By choosing materials which are long-lasting and high-performing, we can reduce the impact our buildings have on the environment and build a more sustainable Europe.
 Polyurethane (PUR), Polyisocyanurate (PIR), Expanded polystyrene (EPS), Extruded polystyrene (XPS)