Feature Article

Plastics in Construction: Performance and Affordability at What Cost?

The construction industry has found uses for plastics in nearly every application from concrete to paints, consuming 22% of all plastic sold in North America.

This Blair, Nebraska factory will convert 40,000 bushels of corn per day (1,400 m3/day) into polylactide (PLA). The plant should be completed by the end of 2001 and become fully operational during 2002.

Source: Cargill Dow
Whenever the term “plastics” is used, a whole generation of Americans immediately thinks of Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 movie classic,

The Graduate. Hoffman portrays Ben, a promising but largely directionless college graduate, whom one family friend cannot help but enlighten with the following advice: “Plastics.”

Indeed, the plastics industry has proven to be tremendously productive. In 1967, when

The Graduate appeared, U.S. plastic production totaled 15 billion pounds (6.8 million tonnes). By 1999, according to the American Plastics Council, the annual total had increased to just under 85 billion pounds (38.5 million tonnes), with more than 60,000 different compounds in production. Plastics are used in virtually every industry, and their use is continuing to grow—at a compounded annual growth rate of 6.4% for the period 1995 to 1999. Nowhere are the presence and growth of plastics more apparent than the construction industry. North American sales for building and construction represent more than 22% of all plastic resin sales, second only to the packaging industry. It’s hard to imagine a building today without plastics. Along with the obvious uses (siding, flooring, piping, wiring, appliances, and foam insulation), plastics are used in everything from concrete to paint.

But at what cost to our environment? This article takes a look at how and why plastics are used in buildings today, what their major environmental impacts are, and some promising new developments in the field. While comprehensive life-cycle assessment (LCA) information is not available for all plastics used in construction, there is enough information available to broadly characterize their relative environmental performance and offer some guidance on selection of the lowest-impact materials.


Published July 1, 2001

(2001, July 1). Plastics in Construction: Performance and Affordability at What Cost?. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/plastics-construction-performance-and-affordability-what-cost