The introduction of the circular economy will transform large parts of the European industry, not only in the EU’s 27 member countries but in neighboring countries as well over the next 20-30 years. It is also likely to cause radical changes in Europe’s coatings sector.
A circular economy puts manufacturing within a closed-loop so that once products and materials are produced and used they are recycled into secondary materials or products. In some cases, they are reduced to their original chemicals for a second life cycle. Energy recovery through incineration is seen as being a final option rather than a landfill.
The current linear system of “take-make-dispose” will be gradually replaced by an approach in which prominence is given to design. In this way, many products will start to be manufactured after the formulation of their coatings have been decided.
An action plan of 54 initiatives on an action plan for the circular economy was adopted in March 2018, by the European Commission, the Brussels-based EU executive, three years after it started work on the scheme.
Now the switch to economic circularity has been given top priority under The European Green Deal, drawn up by a new Commission which took over in December 2019.
The circularity plans of the previous Commission may even be revamped to coincide with the adoption of an EU industrial strategy in March (2020).
“Together with the industrial strategy, a new circular economy action plan will help modernize the EU’s economy and draw benefit from the opportunities of the circular economy domestically and globally,’’ the new Commission said in a communication on the Green Deal.
For Europe’s coatings sector the move to economic circularity will mean a long period when the needs of coatings and other customers will be changing.
The main focus of coatings buyers will be on how coatings and other suppliers can help them protect substrates like metals and wood for use in second life cycles, assist them in reducing carbon footprints through items like biomaterials and, above all, give their products lengthy life cycles with the help of safer and cleaner chemical ingredients.
“For our association, it is going to be a very busy next few years dealing with a lot of challenges related to the circular economy,’’ explained Janice Robinson, product regulations director at the European Council of the Paint, Printing Ink and Artists’ Colours Industry (CEPE).
“The European Green Deal has made a difference (to the time schedule for the circular economy),’’ she added. “A lot of planning and work will have to be done with the national associations on the subject.’’
For the European coatings sector, the implementation of circularity plans – which although drafted at the EU level will be put into effect by the member states – will mean a period of new priorities for customers.
The coatings buyers will be focused on how their producers can help them fulfill the objectives behind the circular economy. As a result, they are likely to gain more control over the contents of the coatings.
Parts of the European coatings industry already have experience in dealing with supply-chain specifications with key components within formulations being laid down by end-users, particularly brand owners and operators in sectors like electronics and aerospace.
Also, coatings customers are already stipulating formulations with recycling streams in mind.
Some of the larger coatings and raw materials producers are well-positioned to take advantage of the transition across much of Europe to circularity. They are setting their own circularity-inspired sustainability targets.
DSM’s coatings resins unit announced last year that it was speeding up the phase-out of all chemicals of “high concern’’ from its finished products so that by 2025 no products with these potentially unsafe chemicals would be sold by the business.
Also, it would be decreasing its own carbon footprint – and hence that of its customers – by reducing indirect value chain emissions through raw materials supplies by 28 percent per ton of product by 2030.
In addition, by the end of the decade, 30 percent of raw materials sourced by the DSM Resins & Functional Materials segment would be bio-based and/or recycled materials.
The objective of the business was to support the efforts of customers to become “leaders in sustainable green solutions, through use of safer, low carbon-footprint and renewable solutions from our product portfolio,’’ according to Helen Mets, DSM Resins & Functional Materials president.
AkzoNobel is following a similar strategy by concentrating on reducing carbon emissions through renewable raw materials.
But it is also seeking innovation through circularity.
It is working with large suppliers and universities in developing high-quality coatings with 25-percent recycled content, creating pigments from carbon black from used tires and developing bio-based resins from crustaceans
In the emerging circular economy, a major issue likely to cause friction between coatings suppliers and purchasers is about the degree of safety or hazard in certain chemicals. The more the concerns about the degree of hazard in specific substances the less they will be wanted by purchasers to be in recycled or re-used products.
“Once there are doubts about the safety or hazards of a chemical or mixtures of chemicals in a product there will inevitably be arguments between suppliers and customers,’’ said one coatings marketing manager.
With what is categorized by ECHA as substances of very high concerns (SVHCs) there should be no grounds for disagreement because they have such a high degree of hazardous risk that the agency has listed them as candidates for EU authorization. The aim is that ultimately they should be phased out of the European market.
However, there are concerns about a lack of transparency about products even containing potentially the most dangerous of substances. ECHA is having to create a database, due to come into operation next year, of articles or finished products containing, including within their coatings, SVHCs.
ECHA is currently evaluating substances to ascertain whether they should be categorized as having a level of concern about their potential hazard, although below the
“One of the risks of the circular economy is that coatings purchasers will be too cautious about the risks of potentially hazardous chemicals,’’ said Tom Bowtell, chief executive of British Coatings Federation, which is expecting that the UK government will remain committed to introducing the circular economy after Brexit or the country’s departure from the EU, due at the end of January 2020.
With the introduction of circularity, the big argument between suppliers and purchasers of coatings and many other products – many of which like coatings are categorized as mixtures of substances – will be what chemicals are good for recycling and the closed-loop system and what is not.
Many of the disputes will probably persist for lengthy periods.