HDPE is known for its large strength to density ratio. The density of HDPE can range from 930 to 970 kg/m. Although the density of HDPE is only marginally higher than that of low-density polyethylene, HDPE has little branching, giving it stronger intermolecular forces and tensile strength than LDPE. The difference in strength exceeds the difference in density, giving HDPE a higher specific strength. It is also harder and more opaque and can withstand somewhat higher temperatures (120 °C/ 248 °F for short periods). High-density polyethylene, unlike polypropylene, cannot withstand normally required autoclaving conditions. The lack of branching is ensured by an appropriate choice of catalyst (e.g., Ziegler-Natta catalysts) and reaction conditions.
The physical properties of HDPE can vary depending on the molding process that is used to manufacture a specific sample; to some degree a determining factor are the international standardized testing methods employed to identify these properties for a specific process. For example, in Rotational Molding, to identify the environmental stress crack resistance of a sample, the Notched Constant Tensile Load Test (NCTL) is put to use.
Owing to these desirable properties, pipes constructed out of HDPE are ideally applicable for potable water, and waste water (storm and sewage).
HDPE is also used for cell liners in subtitle D sanitary landfills, wherein large sheets of HDPE are either extrusion or wedge welded to form a homogeneous chemical-resistant barrier, with the intention of preventing the pollution of soil and groundwater by the liquid constituents of solid waste.
HDPE is preferred by the pyrotechnics trade for mortars over steel or PVC tubes, being more durable and safer. HDPE tends to rip or tear in a malfunction instead of shattering and becoming shrapnel like the other materials.
Milk jugs and other hollow goods manufactured through blow moulding are the most important application area for HDPE, accounting for one-third of worldwide production, or more than 8 million tonnes.