“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” (Oscar Wilde)

There is a temptation in every industry to pursue increased profit by making savings on purchases or announcing price reductions to stimulate increased sales. It is natural for purchasing agents to focus solely on short-term economic measures and seek ways of leveraging one product against another to stimulate competition and reduce cost. However, there are cases, particularly in speciality products, where direct comparisons are difficult to make due to differing balances of properties offered by competing systems. These comparisons become ever more challenging when one considers the impact of sustainability from cradle to grave, in particular its long-term impact on not only environmental but also economic and social considerations.

Some may disagree, but this blog contends that substantial elements of architectural paint products and indeed some industrial protective coatings are treated as commodities by buyers and are bought on the basis of price alone. To address this way of thinking, coatings marketeers endeavour to emphasise the technical benefits of products to avoid commodity labelling. They are more likely to be successful in getting this message across in applications that require long-term functionality benefits in their coatings products rather than shorter-term decorative appeal. However, the pressure is always there from buyers to reduce the purchasing decision down to solely dollars and cents. Somehow, the coatings industry has to convey to the market place the true value of its products. One approach is to integrate into this marketing platform consideration of the three pillars of sustainability.          

A classic example of how to integrate sustainability into a marketing proposal was presented last Fall at the European Coatings Conference organised by CEPE, the European coatings trade association. An industry-wide team of coatings professionals had worked with bridge designers to evaluate differences in the long-term performance of varying paint formulations used to protect the structure of a hypothetical bridge. In a paper entitled “Sustainable Steel Bridge Maintenance: the Role of Paint in the Life Cycle Analysis” presented by Dr. Irmgard Winkels of Sika Deutschland GmbH, the team concluded that, for paints specifically formulated for bridge construction with varying lifetimes, the best overall performance in terms of bridge maintenance over a 100-year timeframe was achieved with the thickest coatings, the largest number of coats, the largest initial green house warming potential/carbon footprint  and, one would imagine, the highest system application cost.

How could this be?

The bridge that was considered in this evaluation was a rural bridge that passed over a motorway/thruway. Three formulations were considered: the first was a two-coat system expected to last 15 years; the second a three-layer coating designed to last 25 years, and the third a four-layer coating lasting 40 years.

The team applied the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) approach, which took account of the types of bridge maintenance procedures that would be required along with the time required to complete each process step. Three scenarios were considered:

  • Bridge construction, maintenance and disposal including traffic disturbances;
  • Maintenance, including traffic disturbances;
  • Only coating emissions over the lifetime of the bridge.

Despite the increased greenhouse warming potential/carbon footprint of the thickest coating, the improved protective performance of this system required less-frequent maintenance and, thereby, gave rise to reduced traffic congestion and thruway closure during maintenance over the long term. The four-layer coating lasting 40 years provided overall the most sustainable system. The same conclusion was reached for all three LCA scenarios.

Looking across the many aspects of environmental sustainability, although the three coatings contributed in varying degrees to the chemicals in the bridge design and depletion of elements used in the formulations, the dominant factor was the overwhelming greenhouse warming potential attributed to the construction of the bridge and maintenance, together with the extra emissions from traffic during periods of bridge closure and congestion. The carbon footprint of the coatings were only 1% or 2% of the totals for all three LCA scenarios.

This analysis drew on all the work that has been done to date by the European Coatings Trade Association (CEPE) and the independent consulting community to develop Life Cycle Analysis tools and databases for the coatings industry. It underlines not only the marketing potential of this approach but, more importantly, its power to influence downstream industries to redesign their products and supply chains around coatings systems that offer more sustainable ways forward for the benefit of society as a whole.

 The old adage that the coatings industry is the most looked-at and the most over-looked, could be a thing of the past, thanks to the application of Life Cycle Analysis, which needs to be tried and tested across many other coatings applications/downstream market sectors. Making the marketplace aware of the true value of coatings is an important responsibility of the paint industry. The LCA approach is a mechanism for achieving that result.