Sustainability initiatives in the European coatings sector have reached a new phase with a much stronger focus on issues like low carbon footprints of products and waste reductions.
Previously the industry has been concentrating on drawing up sustainability strategies and the development of eco-friendly products while at the same time complying with new environmental regulations.
Now that the new greener products under development are on the market, an infrastructure is being created to provide a supply chain for a permanent stream of sustainable coatings.
The European coatings trade association (CEPE) has been drawing up criteria for formulators to check the greenness of raw materials.
This will help them comply, for example, with new certification schemes for green construction projects in countries like Germany and France.
Above all there is growing realization among coatings producers that sustainability is good not just for the environment but business as well.
“They are much more aware that sustainability is a means of making your company more profitable,” Tom Bowtell, chief executive of the British Coatings Federation (BCF) said at the Surfex exhibition in May where he gave a presentation on the subject.
Sustainability was a major theme among exhibitors at the event held in Birmingham, England, which is one of the UK’s primary coatings shows.
“The recession has helped to focus minds on the necessity of a better balance between the economy and the environment,” Bowtell explained. “Now that in the UK and other European countries the economic recovery has started the advantages of achieving this balance have become more evident.”
Approximately 80 percent of decorative paints on the UK market—with similar high percentages in most other European countries – are now water-based. Although this is partly a result of EU regulations on the reduction of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), it is also a response to consumers’ changing attitudes.
“Waterborne decorate paints are a reflection of consumers’ wishes for more environmentally friendly products while they also like their lower odour levels,” said Bowtell.
For BCF and other European coatings associations, an important next step in a sustainable future is more recycling of used paint.
“Tackling the issue of left-over paint will be the big sustainability issue of the next five years,” predicted Bowtell. “Currently the average UK household has 17 cans of unused paint in their homes—equivalent to 56 million litres per year much of which has been going to landfill.”
“The best way to deal with waste paint is to recycle it for reuse but this is happening with only a tiny proportion at the moment,” he added.
Most waste paint which is not disposed in landfill sites is turned into fuel, incinerated or added to other products like cement. A relatively small amount is being reprocessed by a few SMEs into ‘new’ paints with blended colours and added preservatives.
“We need a closed loop recycling system,” Bowtell explained. “One option is to create a self-funded network of recycled paint manufacturers which can be set up initially with the help of industry or even the government.”
The new focus on recycling is part of moves to ensure that coating products are sustainable throughout their life cycles from the sourcing and making of their raw materials through to their reuse—more of a cradle-to-cradle than a cradle-to-grave approach.
“At the moment much of the attention with life cycle analyses (LCA) is on the raw materials, because with carbon footprints of coatings, for example, 73 percent comes on average from the raw materials.” said Bowtell. “But more work is now being done on what happens to the coatings products themselves once they are on the market.”
Promoters at the Surfex exhibition were promoting the services they are offering in the vetting of the origin and/or production standards of coatings raw materials.
“Retail chain are putting pressure on our customers to provide environmental information on the raw materials in their coatings,” said Shane Phoenix, managing director of Arpadis (UK) Ltd., Chester, England.
He related the difficulties of checking the source of raw materials from China, where some suppliers show their European distributors well equipped and operated plants when the actual product is made in a sub-standard neighbouring facility.
“It’s an extension of our responsibilities,” Phoenix commented. “We are now looking beyond the prices and performance of chemicals to their environmental compliance.”
Cornelius Group plc, Bishop’s Stortford, England, which has branches in China, India and in Eastern Europe, uses sustainability questionnaires to give a preliminary screening of suppliers, which is followed by an on-site check by the company’s own trained auditors.
“Sometimes as a result of the answers to our questionnaire we decide not to use a supplier without the need for an audit,” said Natalia McDonagh, marketing manager at Cornelius. “Our rigorous checking system is what our customers are now wanting because they have to ensure that their own products are complying with regulations and meeting the individual requirements of end-users.”
Product stewardship, in which players down the coatings supply chain have responsibility for a product’s safe use, is now becoming an increasingly important part of sustainability.
In order to enable safety information on products to be passed down the chain, software and computer services companies are providing cloud computing systems for accommodating stewardship databanks. Since cloud systems operate through the internet on a subscription basis they can be made easily accessible as well as be quickly updated.
“All the information from safety data sheets (SDSs) and other risk management information can be stored in a cloud system so that anyone in a supply chain can check it out,” explained Simon Bradshaw, an IT solutions company at Hartlepool, England.
Although a lot of progress has been made with sustainability in the European coatings sector, there are still big challenges to be overcome.
After dropping by approximately a quarter in five years, energy per tonne of coatings production in the UK has started to go up again. VOC emissions per tonne of output has creeping back to the levels before the 2008 financial crisis, a trend which seems to be linked to a flattening out in reduced sales of solvents.
“While use of solvents has been substantially reduced in decorative paints, they are still applied extensively in industrial coatings,” said Bowtell. “The protective function of many of these coatings cannot be achieved without solvents. It would be counter-productive to restrict solvents in industrial coatings any more because the overall effect would be environmentally negative.”
Finding a means of offsetting the environmental impact of solvents in industrial coatings is just one of a number of outstanding major challenges in the sustainability agenda.