The argument about environmentally friendly materials continues.

By now, most of you are familiar with the green building movement and its impact on plumbing systems. This includes the additional savings of water and the lowering of the energy demands for operating a plumbing or mechanical system. Other green building initiatives are the reuse of storm water and recycling of grey water. All these concepts make sense, and sometimes will add cost to the building.

There is another side to the green building movement that occasionally rears its ugly head, adding ambiguity to the entire discussion. This involves the actual building material used in construction. Is the material environmentally friendly? Are we using recycled materials? Are we preventing the depletion of our natural resources?

These questions that the greenies raise regarding all building materials used in green buildings can result in a bias between different materials. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer when comparing materials. Some have accused the greenies of being anti-oil or anti-plastic when evaluating building materials.

Let's consider the most common material used in plumbing fixtures, vitreous china. Vitreous china is nothing more than mud or clay that is made into a fixture, glazed, and fired in a kiln. You would think that we are safe. But, the mud uses precious natural resources. We don't recycle our vitreous china. When you take out a water closet, you smash it with a sledgehammer and throw it into the landfill. This is wasting valuable landfill space. On top of that, to make a vitreous china fixture, you have to fire it in a kiln for 12 to 24 hours; a lot of energy is used to operate a kiln at high temperatures.

You see the way an argument can be twisted around when considering the total environmental impact of a building material. Nowhere in that argument did you hear any discussion of the high level of sanitation that a vitreous china fixture provides to the public. Or how the plumbing industry saves modern civilization by insisting on a high level of sanitation and clean potable water.

We can get bogged down in insincere discussions if the entire picture is not examined when evaluating building materials. By the way, I have not heard of any discussion opposed to vitreous china, I just use this as an example of the types of discussions that have been raised regarding other building materials.

Environmentally Friendly Piping Material

The debate among some greenies has revolved around piping material, specifically cast iron, PVC, ABS and copper. Which material is more environmentally friendly?

It is unfortunate that the greenies have pitted the material manufacturers against one another. The cast iron industry can claim that cast iron is made with recycled materials. You always see an old car engine block being dropped into the pot of a cast iron mill. Copper is also made with recycled materials.

PVC and ABS are using our valuable natural resources since this pipe is made from oil.

When you look at the other side of the discussion, cast iron uses a tremendous amount of energy to melt the iron and form it into pipe and fittings. The mills add greenhouse gases to the environment. Copper also uses energy and adds greenhouse gases. Copper is in limited supply, as is iron; there is only so much in the earth.

PVC and ABS come from the ground. How can that be unfriendly? Oil is extracted and used for many valuable benefits to mankind. Less energy is required to make PVC and ABS pipe.

Some of the greenies in New York City went even further to say that PVC and ABS pipe offgas nasty plastic fumes into the environment. Therefore, the materials are less friendly. It didn't matter that they had no scientific data to support this claim.

This discussion got so carried away that the U.S. Green Building Council prepared a paper on the difference between piping materials for drainage, waste and vent systems. Many expected the paper to slam plastic pipe. It did not.

Actually, the draft paper that I read was very thought-provoking. It basically rated cast iron, PVC and ABS to be on approximately an equal footing. In the order of environmental friendliness, they rated the pipes PVC, cast iron and ABS, in that order. However, before you take that to the bank, there were qualifications that ended up saying there is no difference.

Basically, the report applauded the efforts by the U.S. pipe manufacturers in dealing with environmental issues. Cast iron mills are much cleaner operating than 50 years ago. The plastic mills have addressed pollution and ground water contamination.

The winner in this discussion was the plumbing industry. As much as we have been cursed and screamed at, we have responded to every issue better and faster than other industries. We have taken care of pollution; we have cleaned up the environment; and most importantly, we have maintained the sanitation of a nation.

That doesn't mean we are off the hook. The latest environmental issue attack is that we still have too much lead in our plumbing products. To some, any lead is too much lead. While we review this every day, politicians are looking to make a name for themselves by screaming lead in plumbing products.

Rest assured that the plumbing industry is not sitting still during these attacks. The various experts in our profession are discussing lead in drinking water on a daily basis. Every problem that is identified is quickly analyzed to determine the cause, problem and solution. This information is forwarded to various committees to change requirements regulating piping material.

In other words, while the green movement is new, the plumbing industry is not. We simply need to publicize that we are addressing environmental concerns; we are addressing health aspects; and we are always looking at the impact piping material has on the system.

It almost goes without saying that if the piping material is in the code, it is acceptable from a green building, environmentally friendly standpoint. Furthermore, no one piping material trumps another material in green building design.