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What is Polyethylene Tubing?

Adam Hill
Adam Hill

Polyethylene tubing is a type of flexible piping which is commonly used in laboratories, as well as for transporting water, including drinking water. Its main component, polyethylene, is a polymer chain made of ethylene molecules, which consist of carbon and hydrogen. It can be made in different densities depending on the manner in which it will be used. Polyethylene is the most widely-used plastic in the world.

There are two common categories of polyethylene tubing: low density, and high density. Polyethylene tubing is considered to have a low density if it weighs between 0.0814 oz and 0.0839 oz per cubic inch (0.91 and 0.94 grams per cubic centimeter). Low density polyethylene (LDPE) has the advantage of being very flexible and highly resistant to cracks. It is also able to be used in a wide range of temperatures. Many types of it are approved for use with potable water and other food handling applications.

Drinking water can be transported through polyethylene tubine.
Drinking water can be transported through polyethylene tubine.

High density polyethylene (HDPE) tubing is defined by a density greater than 0.084 oz per cubic inch (0.941 grams per cubic centimeter). It is not as flexible as LDPE, but it does stand up to sterilization by boiling. This can be an important advantage, especially when it is used for food handling. Tubing made of HDPE also withstands corrosive chemicals better than LDPE, making it the preferred choice for scientific applications.

Polyethylene is strong enough for use in bullet-proof vests.
Polyethylene is strong enough for use in bullet-proof vests.

Polyethylene is a compound which does not occur in nature, and so it must be synthesized in a laboratory or industrial environment. Because of this, its wide use has been limited to the 20th century and beyond. The first person to synthesize polyethylene was the German chemist Hans von Pechmann in 1898. Several more scientists were able to produce it under laboratory conditions over the next few decades. It was not until 1935 that a practical method was invented for producing polyethylene on a larger scale.

Polyethylene as a compound actually has far more uses than just as a component of polyethylene tubing. It is heavily used in numerous consumer products as well, including milk cartons, shopping bags, shrink wrap, and garbage containers, to name a few. Certain types of polyethylene have a very high molecular weight, which results in a very rigid material. It is strong enough for use in bullet-proof vests and butchers’ chopping boards. And yet, it is also chemically inert enough to form parts of the implants used in hip and knee replacements.

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Discussion Comments


Grayline is right: PE and PVC are very different. You asked about the environmental issues with PVC. PVC is a rigid material (think: PVC pipe that your plumber uses). It's made flexible by adding a plasticizer. Flexible PVC is the same stuff that was used for seats in your 1967 Ford Galaxie. It's very soft and supple (and sticks to your legs when you wear shorts).

Most plasticizers use a family of chemicals called "phthalates". There has been some concern in recent years, linking phthalates with a variety of health and environmental issues. A few plastic tubing companies now are offering non-phthalate PVC. Look up that term and you'll find them. The material has all of the same properties as the old PVC, but just without the phthalates.


Catherine77, Polyethylene does not equal PVC. PVC is PolyVinylChloride. While there are environmental concerns with PVC, changing to a different material such as PE is not a simple mater. I would strongly recommend that you speak with your tubing supplier.

A tubing manufacturer like Grayline, Inc. has engineering technical support that can help you. With knowledge of your specific application, we can help find the right material that meets your requirements at the lowest cost.


Hello, what impact does polyethylene have on our environment? Is there an alternative to this material? I use 160psi and 100psi pvc tubing in 99% of my products and am concerned about the planetary impact I might be making. My understanding is that polyethylene = pvc. Please advise. Thank you!

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    • Drinking water can be transported through polyethylene tubine.
      By: Andrey Kuzmin
      Drinking water can be transported through polyethylene tubine.
    • Polyethylene is strong enough for use in bullet-proof vests.
      By: RTimages
      Polyethylene is strong enough for use in bullet-proof vests.