At the same time, however, producers of coatings and their raw materials are having to deal with uncertainties about exactly what materials can be categorized as being environmentally acceptable. Sustainability is not always something that can be easily proved.
European standards bodies are currently drawing up standards for biomaterials, which should help establish the biological genuineness of chemicals like biosolvents, biosurfactants and biopolymers.
However, with more complex issues like biodegradation and bioaccumulation, which are covered by environmental and safety legislation, European regulators could take several years to draw up specific rules for coatings raw materials such as pigments.
Meanwhile, a growing proportion of companies, many of them buyers of coatings, are utilizing office IT systems to ensure that personnel meet corporate sustainability criteria, including regulatory compliance, when purchasing products.
Use of these software tools reflects the rising proportion of companies in Europe that are now wanting to switch as much as possible to ‘green’ products.
In a recent global study of 500 industry executives, McKinsey & Company, a management consultancy, found that greenness is considered to be one of three “very important” factors along with consistency/quality and superior service. “Executives rate greenness as a key differentiating factor for their company from competitors, “ Jens-Christian Blad, a McKinsey consultant, told the Ecochem sustainable chemistry conference, in Basle, Switzerland, in November.
Among the different aspects of greenness, executives of companies in Europe attached more importance to biodegradability and biobased materials than their U.S. counterparts who put more value on recyclability and non-toxicity.
The executives in Europe also had the highest proportion of customers requiring or consistently purchasing green products—38 percent against 28 percent in Asia and 13 percent in the U.S.
AkzoNobel, approximately two thirds of whose annual sales are in coatings with the remainder in speciality chemicals, has a target of 20 percent of its revenue by 2020 coming from products which provide a sustainability benefit to its customers.
Already 9 percent of its raw materials expenditure is on biobased chemicals, which the company claims is much higher than the average among its industry peers.
“We would like to take that further, but we can’t affect our competiveness with our customer base,” Peter Nieuwenhuizen, AkzoNobel’s director for future-proof supply chains, told the Basle conference.
Nevertheless the company is aiming to increase the share of biobased chemicals in its raw materials spend from 9 percent to 12 percent by 2020.
AkzoNobel is currently concentrating on boosting the application of selected biobased raw materials such as epichlorohydrin, acrylic acid, acetone and n-butanol. “We can start to see a path to the ‘greening’ of significant parts of our supply chain, “Nieuwenhuizen said.
Currently certain drivers—like rapidly growing supplies of cost competitive biobased materials, increased demand and an emphasis on decreasing carbon footprints—favored the rise in sales of biobased raw materials, according to Nieuwenhuizen. In addition they have advantages for AkzoNobel, such as providing alternative sources of supply and, in terms of sustainability, strengthening its position as a leading global coatings company.
However, particularly in Europe, coatings companies and their raw material suppliers will need the support of official standards to help bolster sales of products which are biobased and/or meet sustainability criteria.
The European Committee for Standardisation (CEN), a European Union-backed body, has stated that standards for biobased products are “essential elements in aggregating demand” for them.
The European Commission, the European Union’s executive, has mandated CEN to draw up standards on a range of biobased chemicals, most of which can be used in coatings.
The task is being carried out by a technical committee which is liasing closely with the main European trade association for coatings and printing inks (CEPE), as well as organizations representing producers of fats and oils, starches, solvents and bioplastics and conventional plastics.
Fredric Petit, chairman of the committee who is also sustainability director at DSM, a supplier of both biobased and conventional raw materials for coatings such as resins, warned the Ecochem meeting that standardization could be complex.
The process of creating a European standard from the start of work on a draft through to the approval of a definitive text could take at least three years, he said. Only then would a standard be ready to be implemented nationally across 33 countries, 28 of them EU members with the remainder non-EU countries like Norway, Iceland and Turkey.
Besides the absence of standards, another hurdle to the marketing in Europe of biobased and sustainability products is the necessity for chemicals sold in Europe to be registered, with safety profiles, under REACH, the EU’s chemicals safety legislation. Some chemical companies have been deterred from launching new biobased products in Europe because of the high cost of gathering test data for REACH.
REACH is also posing difficulties for coatings raw materials suppliers, particularly pigment makers, who want to establish the sustainability of their products.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), Helsinki, Finland, which is responsible for administering REACH, has still not come up with firm criteria for deciding whether the levels of persistency, bioaccumulation and biodegradation of pigments and other chemicals with similar properties are hazardous to the environment.
The agency is sceptical about the accuracy of some testing systems for biodegradability and persistency which have been authorized by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), whose approved tests are accepted by regulators across the world.
An expert group has been set up by ECHA to help with the assessment of and validation of testing methods for chemicals suspected of being persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) or very persistent and very bioaccumulative (vPvB).
So far the PBT Expert Group has over two years investigated around 150 substances, including coatings pigments and biological products. It has fully assessed 11 with only one assessed as being PBT or vPvB. With most of the rest it had stated it needs more information or test data.
At a recent conference on chemicals persistency in Paris, Johanna Peltola-Thies, an ECHA official, admitted that a long list of scientific issues needed to be clarified by the expert group.
The European Commission to which ECHA is accountable, pledged last year (2013) all prioritized PBTs or vPvBs would be assessed by 2020. But it conceded that some other potentially persistent or bioaccumulative substances could still be awaiting full evaluation after that date.
Establishing the sustainability of some coatings and their raw materials, even biobased ones, in Europe could turn out to be a lengthy procedure.