Vinyl Institute makes its case for PVC pipes for US water systems
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Vinyl Institute makes its case for PVC pipes for US water systems

Aug 04, 2023

The vinyl industry is fighting back against claims that it shouldn't be used in infrastructure products and is bringing specific examples to support it.

In a Vinyl Institute report released Aug. 9, it noted that the water system in Atlanta lost almost a third of the 35 billion gallons of the treated water it supplied in 2021 to leaks.

About $3 million of treated water seeped out, local officials said, wasting a precious resource and taxpayer dollars that could have been spent elsewhere.

Georgia is one of the few states that require utilities to audit their systems, so the extent of the problem on a national level is a bit murky, but estimates put the national loss at 6 billion gallons of treated water a day. That's enough water to fill 9,000 swimming pools.

Water system upgrades are coming with $55 billion of federal money flowing from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and new debates are brewing about what pipe materials should be used.

The Washington-based Vinyl Institute is weighing in with a new report that says 70 years of research and real-life studies show PVC pipe's safety, affordability and sustainability make it the best choice to replace America's drinking water systems.

The trade group — representing manufacturers of vinyl, vinyl chloride monomer, vinyl additives and modifiers — issued a 24-page report Aug. 9 called "PVC Pipe: The proven solution for America's water infrastructure."

The report shows how PVC pipe outperforms its competitors in the water infrastructure market in terms of longevity, durability, energy efficiency and better fiscal response.

PVC pipes have service lives up to 100 years, require fewer repairs and cost less, according to Ned Monroe, president and CEO of the Vinyl Institute.

"Other types of pipes can't compare with the performance of PVC for our water infrastructure," Monroe said in a news release. "PVC has a decadeslong history of being the most successful material in delivering clean and safe drinking water, as backed up by research-based evidence."

Many communities are turning to PVC to modernize their water systems. The report says the value of the PVC pipe market is expected to grow from $6.3 billion in 2021 to $12.1 billion by 2031, citing a May 2022 report from Allied Market Research.

The PVC pipe sector's adherence to NSF 61, a standard recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ensures delivery of safe, clean drinking water. The NSF 61 standard sets contaminant limits for all pipe materials that come in contact with drinking water, including iron, copper and cement.

PVC pipe offers other advantages. It doesn't corrode internally or externally so drinking water doesn't need chemical additives to resist corrosion. The noncorrosive qualities also stop the loss of treated water.

As for service life, PVC pipe can remain in operation more than 100 years with an extremely low failure rate, the report says, citing academic research from Utah State University, which has a Buried Structures Laboratory, where researchers have been analyzing and testing all kinds of pipes for 50 years.

Pipe made from PVC also isn't prone to scaling or tuberculation, which can create a breeding ground for harmful bacteria like Legionella.

In addition, lightweight yet durable PVC pipe requires less energy to produce, transport and operate, giving it a lower carbon footprint than other pipe materials. As an example, the report says it takes 54 percent more energy to pump water through an 8-inch ductile iron pipe than it does through an 8-inch PVC during the life of the system. Using PVC pipe instead of ductile iron for this size range could save $21 billion in national pumping costs over 100 years, the report adds, noting about 66 percent of U.S. water supply pipes in the 8 inches or smaller.

One of the Vinyl Institute's messages to communities improving their water systems is to allow PVC pipe products to compete even if they won't get serious consideration let alone approval.

Cities save almost 30 percent on material costs even if they don't select PVC pipe, according to a 2018 presentation about municipal procurement at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

At the end of its useful life, PVC also can be mechanically recycled into other PVC products as many as eight times. However, many PVC products like pipes and vinyl siding and decking haven't entered the recycling stream because of their long lifespans, the report says.

Still, PVC pipe opponents are making a big push at the grassroots level to discourage communities from upgrading their water systems with PVC products.

"Despite these documented benefits, opponents of PVC pipe have done their utmost to discourage governments from utilizing the material for water infrastructure," the report says of "ideological critics."

Beyond Plastics, a Bennington, Vt.-based group headed by a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator, has been vocal and active. In New York, the group is opposing a proposed PVC packaging and pipe plant, in part pointing to the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

A Norfolk Southern train was moving five rail cars of vinyl chloride monomer, a PVC resin feedstock, that emergency responders burned off, sending smoke and odors that have led to health problems for some area residents.

Beyond Plastics also has published a 56-page report — "The Perils of PVC Plastic" — that recommends copper and recycled copper for the drinking water service lines connecting water mains under streets to household taps.

The Vinyl Institute's report addresses benefits of PVC pipes and broadly tackles some misinformation and concerns about PVC pipes' impact on the environment in regard to leaching, wildfires, recycling, sustainability, dioxins, plasticizers and organotin stabilizers.

Two charts list false claims, such as melted PVC from wildfires leaches benzene into water supplies, next to facts like PVC doesn't produce benzene during open-air combustion, which includes wildfires.

NSF-certified pipes also don't contain phthalates, which are used to make vinyl flexible, as opposed to PVC pipe, which needs to be rigid.

While some heat stabilizers that contain tin are among the raw materials used to make PVC pipe, the NSF certification would confirm the pipe meets all federal requirements, the report says.

Also, dioxin emissions from PVC manufacturing have declined about 90 percent since 1987, the report says, citing other reports from EPA and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Total PVC resin production for pipes represents less than 0.09 percent of all U.S. dioxin releases, compared with 5 percent for diesel trucks on an annual basis, according to the report.

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