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The Role of Plastics in Your Building's Energy Efficiency Plan

It may come as a surprise, but the building and construction industry is the nation’s third-largest consumer of plastic resins. Only recently have those in the industry come to see plastics as a durable, energy efficient building material with the potential to reshape the essential vision of the construction industry at-large. The versatile nature of plastics enables the material to be incorporated into buildings long after they’ve been initially constructed, making it a useful tool for operations and maintenance applications as well.

Use of plastics in operations and maintenance have been shown to reduce enough energy to power over 4 million American households every year, so how can building owners and managers incorporate plastic based materials into existing facilities to make them more energy efficient?


One of the easiest ways to improve energy efficiency is through insulation. Expanding plastic spray foam insulation, installed through a tube into access holes opened in an existing interior or exterior wall, improves the thermal performance of a wall while also sealing air infiltration gaps and leaks. Air leaks can waste a lot of energy by re-heating and re-cooling. Air-sealing technology that uses expanding plastic foam can fill these air gaps and leaks along irregular surfaces and near window penetrations. 

Rigid plastic foam insulation board can also be bonded vertically against inside basement walls to reduce the transfer of cooler ground temperatures, adding year-round efficiency and comfort while increasing a building's usable space. This can be especially helpful for bottom floors in residential or office buildings. 


Another area where plastics can be extremely beneficial is surrounding heating and cooling systems. According to the DOE, up to 40 percent of your heating or cooling energy can be lost through leaky HVAC duct systems. Plastic mastics and sealing tapes reduce the leakage and help improve efficiency of the systems, reducing energy usage and overall cost. 

Additionally, another energy saving idea is to lay plastic polyethylene extruded (PEX) radiant heat tubing in serpentine fashion between first floor joists can transform the first floor material into a radiant heated mass that convects warm air throughout a building. 


Windows and doors can play a huge part in energy loss or retention in structures, making them an ideal area to focus on for energy savings. Commercial buildings are beginning to use plastic film glazing materials applied over window glass surfaces. The film reflects rather than absorbing heat-carrying sunlight and decreases building solar heat gain, keeping cooling costs to a minimum. Replacing less efficient single-pane glass windows with high thermal performing vinyl-clad or plastic window frame material can also reduce heat and cold transfer in the window opening, making the occupied space easier to heat and cool. 


Use of a similar reflective vinyl or thermoplastic olefin (TPO) polymer as a roofing membrane on the exterior roof can reduce solar heat gain. When combined with a layer of the plastic foam insulation, it reduces heat and cold penetration, making the combination especially effective in buildings in warmer climates. 

Next Goal: Net Zero

The inexorable rise in the use of plastic building materials has only begun. Emerging designs and building practices that use modern plastic materials will continue to dramatically improve the energy efficiency of buildings. Like insulation and sealant systems have helped the growth of net-zero homes, so too will plastic construction materials help the U.S. reach its goal of net-zero for all U.S. commercial buildings by 2050. 

Greg Bergtold is chair of the building and construction team, plastics division, for the American Chemistry Council.

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