Building plastics

A wide range of plastics are used in building and construction in piping, drainage, sheet and cladding, as well as in packaging.  Plastics provide many useful functions in building, but they have become overused and have associated chemical hazards.  Around 20% of the plastics produced worldwide are estimated to go to the buildings sector, according to the Summary Report from the ISC3 Sustainable Building and Living, Focus on Plastics workstream.

Plastics carry a range of environmental hotspots across their full lifecycle, with hazards in production, at end of life from contamination which may be carried over into recycled feedstock, and from emissions of air pollutants (such as dioxins) if they are incinerated at end-of-life.  Where not properly collected, plastics and potentially harmful chemicals in their structure exhibit high persistence and low biodegradability in the environment.

Health concerns have been raised over the presence of ortho-phthalates, as plasticisers in PVC that carry endocrine disruption risks, and plastics also have hazards in production from precursor substances (for example the vinyl chloride monomer used to make PVC is a known carcinogen).

Some building plastics contain UV stabilisers, some of which contain heavy metal compounds (such as organotin), which have been associated with toxicity to aquatic environments, as well as concerns with reproductive effects and potential endocrine disruption in humans.

Despite the above concerns, there are potential benefits from recycling waste plastics into building materials, which can help address the impact of waste plastic in the environment and take advantage of the long lifetime of plastics.  However, it is crucial that this is done effectively and responsibly, and avoids leakage to the environment.

The resources below explore the above hazards further and provide information on how to reduce the use of plastics, and select safer ones where they are used.