When conventions achieve record attendance levels, you know that the industry concerned and the sectors that supply it have a positive view of the future. The economy of Europe may be on a low growth trajectory at present but the high-energy atmosphere created by participants at the recent European Coatings Show (ECS) gave confidence to forecasters who project that demand for coatings will be above GDP growth for the foreseeable future, both in Europe and worldwide.

Sustainable development is, however, a different matter linked as it is to the discovery and delivery of innovation in its broadest sense. Last year’s American Coatings Show (ACS) in Atlanta provided the platform for the launch of several stunning new technologies. This year’s ECS was typified by consolidation of some of the recent technical breakthroughs plus incremental developments across all types of formulation ingredients.

BASF, one of the leading companies when it comes to embracing the principles underlying sustainability, summed up the message of ECS when it offered in its promotional material “a closer look at low VOC, efficiency and extended lifespan”. Indoor air quality, durability, health and cost were also featured in other BASF literature. AkzoNobel, another leader in the sustainability field, promoted a number of practical developments in the additive and binder area that support its Planet Possible® policy of “doing more with less”. DSM was unique with its theme “Shaping a Sustainable Coatings Industry, Together”, publically recognising the importance of collaboration up and downstream to gather ideas from all sources and thereby develop ways forward that deliver the most sustainable outcomes in the long term.   

The keynote speech at the ACS last year focused on energy management and reflected the strong drive in the USA to take advantage of demand for coatings created by the growth of new sources of gas and oil in North America. This year, the ECS keynote speech by Professor Rolf Mülhaupt of the University of Freiburg, Germany, devoted itself entirely to green polymer chemistry and reflected the strength of interest Europe has in sustainable development and the growth opportunities it brings to the coatings industry. He referred to separate developments at Nuplex and Dow to refine and commercialise an isocyanate-free route to polyurethane manufacture. Nuplex won the 2015 European Coatings Award for its work that had been prompted by the need for new systems with “increased productivity coupled with environmental, health and safety friendliness”. This represented one of the few innovations on display that one could describe as offering the prospect of radical change.

Gone are the days when companies endeavoured to publicise carbon footprint data for their new and existing products. At the ECS two years ago, it was seen as important to emphasise biological sources of chemical building blocks and intermediates. At this exhibition, the watchword was ‘bio-renewable’, with a growing acceptance that the coatings industry and those that supply it need to focus on the management of waste both up and downstream, and think through the implications of the regenerative circular economy. Bayer promoted its new platform for isocyanate manufacture using a corn raw material base, which gives it a 70% renewable content. Professor Mülhaupt referred positively to the growing number of chemical processes capable of polymerising with carbon dioxide sourced directly or indirectly from the decomposition of paints after use or through incineration of coated substrates.

DuPont’s Chemours’ subsidiary used life cycle analysis to illustrate the sustainable advantages of its new high-performance grade of titanium dioxide. However, this was the only company to do so. Generally, promotional material at ECS lacked measures of sustainability, principally because the coatings industry has yet to agree on standards by which the sustainable impact of formulation ingredients and the coatings themselves are objectively measured. When questioned on this point, some congress speakers described the mammoth task required to undertake life cycle analyses for each specific application and end-of-life outcome. We evidently have a long way to go to institutionalise standard measures that reflect all three pillars of sustainability, although this task is currently being addressed by the European Union’s Product Environmental Footprint (PEFCR) programme, which is supported by a number of global paint manufacturers.

The ‘Elephant in the Room’ at the ECS was, as always, one of cost management with the pace of new technology introduction often held back by unfavourable short-term economics compared to the systems that are being targeted for replacement for environmental or social reasons. Occasionally, there was reference to waste streams being used as raw material sources not only as a way of recycling valuable nutrients but also reducing both carbon footprint and cost. Concerns expressed about the variability of raw materials underlined the need for creativity not only in the selection of suitable technologies but also in rigorous management of supply chains from cradle to grave.

Overall, ECS displayed remarkable energy and effort in support of an essential industry that has continued growth credentials. It needs to demonstrate to all of its customers and stakeholders that it is doing its upmost to improve its environmental, economic and social performance. While the emphasis of ECS was principally one of incremental improvements across the board that will enhance the performance and functionality of coatings, there is a growing expectation that sustainability is going to be the basis for the next wave of legislation not only in Europe but worldwide. Should this expectation be realised, sustainable development will become a major battle ground and the source of competition for coating companies and their suppliers in the future.

 That future may not be too far away!