As the year end approaches, it is a timely moment to review the achievements of the coatings industry and propose some key activities for the years ahead.

Where Does Sustainability Stand in the Priority List of Target Areas These Days?

Over the past 12 months, the world has been rocked by a number of events which, it could be argued, have reduced the priority nations are giving to the quest for a more sustainable world. The Chinese economy in particular continues to struggle with manufacturing over-capacity as growth in demand from its main export markets weakens. To re-energise the Chinese economy, the government has taken the long-term decision to encourage a higher birth rate by repealing the one child per family policy. This ensures that we get to a 9 billion global population sooner than was previously predicted. The global oil markets have been impacted by the availability of shale oil from the U.S., and the price of energy from traditional sources has fallen, encouraging increased use and thereby more carbon dioxide in the air. Some country governments have cut spending on environmental projects, reducing subsidies that support the manufacture of renewable materials and energy. Despite the Paris Climate Change Conference now in progress, where there has been a proposal for a substantial carbon tax worldwide and a more efficient carbon emissions trading programme, it is difficult to see how we are going to keep the rise in the temperature of the oceans below the target of 2 degrees Centigrade.

However, Nothing has Deterred the Coatings Industry From Moving Forward

Two years ago, the American Coatings Association (ACA) published an excellent report on the achievements of its members in their pursuit of a more sustainable world. This has now been followed up by the British Coatings Federation (BCF), which has just published an in-depth report that tracks members’ achievements across all three pillars of sustainability. It also compares these achievements against some tough goals set in a policy document that was issued in 2009. For those feeling as if the coatings industry does not have an appetite for sustainable projects, then this is a document that needs to be read and its sustainable examples emulated. The report cites many cases where companies have radically reduced VOC content, reformulated coatings to meet and beat new regulations designed to avoid materials of concern, and significantly added to the range of functional properties that can be achieved with coatings products. These new functionality benefits include:

  • Coatings that deliver the desired results with a reduced number of applications;
  • Decorative paints that better reflect light and permit lower wattage light bulbs to be used to create the same level of brightness in a room;
  • Internal and external roof coatings that reflect heat away from houses during hot seasons and keep warmth in during the winter;
  • Coatings that generate useable electricity;
  • Coatings that are scratch resistant in automotive applications;
  • Coatings that remove impurities from the air; 
  • Low-emission paints to protect indoor air quality, particularly in well-insulated homes;
  • Anti-microbial coatings;
  • Lighter-weight coatings that reduce fuel consumption;
  • Anti-fouling coatings for marine applications. 

Equally, the quest for sustainable development has motivated coatings companies to invest in their own manufacturing capabilities, thereby delivering greater efficiencies and improved bottom line performance. At the same time, companies have been building ever-closer links with employees, customers and local communities in which they operate. The BCF report can be found here and is well worth a read!

The coatings industries in North America, Europe and Asia have worked closely with raw material suppliers, governments, NGOs and councils representing downstream industries to define in ever greater clarity what ‘lower sustainable impact’ means. In the United States, the industry has developed America’s first Product Category Rule (PCR) for an architectural paint and, in doing so, has prescribed what is meant in precise scientific terms by properties such as durability and life span. It can be downloaded here.

The trail-blazing work of the US PaintCare® programme to collect, reprocess and recycle waste architectural paint following a model launched some years ago in Canada is already going well in eight states of the Union ( OR, CA, CT, RI, ME, VT, MN and CO), with Washington, DC to follow in 2016. As a colleague at the ACA put it, ‘there is a lot of energy, excitement and interest in sustainable development in the U.S. coatings Industry’.

So, What Next?

In the United States, you only have to review the Sustainability Guidelines and Standards for the Federal Government’s procurement programmes, the U.S. EPA’s draft guidance for eco-labels and the growing demands for third party certification programmes to realise that this is not going away!

Sustainable development is a continuous, ongoing process, and there is always room for further improvement. In the coming years, opportunities will arise based on technology developments by suppliers who themselves are reducing their environmental footprints and improving manufacturing economics. Much can also be expected from the development of renewable raw materials derived from non-food sources. These novel materials can not only deliver lower carbon footprints but also different property balances compared with the synthetic materials they replace. These in turn can provide the coatings industry with new opportunities for technical developments worthy of commercialisation. New formulation ingredients can also lead to functionality enhancements in coatings that contribute to the sustainable development of downstream industries.

Pursuit of the Circular Economy will become increasingly more important over time. Waste management will be a major agenda item for all aspects of the coatings industry requiring ever closer collaboration with other industries up and down stream as well as government authorities.

The work being undertaken on both sides of the Atlantic on Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) has the capability to provide objective comparisons between competing coatings formulations and delivery systems. This approach has the potential to lead the product development strategy of the coatings industry towards ever more sustainable long-term formulations.

Greater incorporation of sustainability into the strategic thinking of all coatings companies will become the norm, not just because it is the responsible corporate position to take, but also because it will be necessary to anticipate and prepare for further legislation and taxation down the track.

The coatings industry cannot move forward on its own and will need to work in partnership with suppliers and customers to break current paradigms and deliver new products and processes that lead to further sustainable development. With its central position between the chemical industry and those downstream industries that apply and benefit from coatings, manufacturers of paints and coatings are in an ideal position to lead sustainable development the entire length of the supply chains in which they find themselves playing, as always, critical roles.

There’s plenty to do and a long way to go!  Coatings industry……. lead on!!

A more sustainable New Year to everyone,  

Tony Mash