Last December, this blog reviewed the past year in the coatings industry from the perspective of sustainable development and also looked ahead to 2016. I was delighted to receive a comment full of encouragement for the sentiments that drive this blog, as follows:

“Taking care of the resources of this planet is of utmost importance if humanity is to survive. It is good to see that initiatives such as this blog are there to support the introduction of environmentally friendly practices. Best of luck!”

Many thanks for that comment although I would add that, rather than luck, what we need is ‘hard graft’ and ‘elbow grease’?

What’s Holding Things Up?

Progress in such a diverse and complex area as sustainability is likely to come in dribs and drabs. The pace of change can be held up by any of the following:

  • A continuing belief that climate change and the world’s finite resources are not critical issues.
  • An unpredictable financial environment that restricts investment in development projects and focuses everyone’s minds on short-term economic imperatives rather than long-term environmental solutions.
  • A diverse political and social structure at country, state and local levels with complex legislative and administrative machines that tend to preserve the status quo and slow the pace of change.
  • The absence of ‘Eureka’ step-change discoveries that offer environmental ways forward and also improve social impact and lower cost of delivery.

Some Practical Solutions

Looking forward, the key to workable solutions is practicality. We need to continue the search for creative ideas that address not only the environmental, but also the social and economic pillars of sustainability as well. Once they have been identified, the next step is to find ways to implement them quickly and everywhere.

The consumer and user of paints will have noticed the transition from solvent to water-based decorative coatings and the general move to low-VOC formulations over the past few years. Going forward, significant effort is being expended in other areas as well.

Looking at the trade press, I can see that paint manufacturers are doing their utmost to gain new business by enhancing the properties of paints, extending product lifetimes, reducing the number of coats, creating more appealing colours in architectural paints and enhancing functionality of industrial coatings. These types of developments can improve the sustainability profile of downstream users as well as paint manufacturers, providing the new products brought to market do not present concerns associated with safety, toxicity and waste disposal.

Glimpses of the Circular Economy

The circular economy promotes the need to recycle rather than incinerate or landfill valuable materials that have outlasted their primary application. Finding ways of addressing this in the coatings industry is not obvious. It was therefore a delight to read on the top of an AkzoNobel plastic can of paint purchased in my local hardware store the legend ‘This can is made from 25% recycled content’. Here is a good example of a practical way forward that is understandable, achievable and contributes to sustainable development. I am sure that AkzoNobel and its can suppliers would like to increase the content of recycled material in each can but there are all sorts of issues related to the sourcing, provenance and quality of the recycled materials that have to be addressed.

There are also companies looking at the recycling of paint cans, both metal and plastic, where concern for contamination as well as efficiency of operations (collection, cleaning and transportation) have to be managed to satisfy economic as well as regulatory considerations at national, regional and local levels.

Another practical example moving towards the circular economy is the American Coating Association’s (ACA) PaintCare® programme by which waste architectural paint is recycled, reprocessed and resold into user markets. This programme, which relies on state legislation and levies to fund the recycle supply chain for the returned product, has been implemented by nine states of the Union to date, with more states showing interest from year to year. I look forward to the day when all 50 states enact similar legislation.

If You Can’t Measure, You Can’t Manage

Sustainability is one of those areas where there are plenty of interested parties developing measures that can be used to monitor progress and undertake direct comparisons of coatings systems. Good progress has been made by the ACA, which has published a Product Category Rule (PCR) for architectural paint that Sherwin Williams has used to develop an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD); something that is quite common in parts of Europe. The challenge now is to decide what to do with this valuable piece of work. How can this kind of measure be incorporated and how to encourage a multi-attribute cradle-to-grave view of sustainability across industry and government? These questions will need to be addressed next in public and political domains as well as private sectors, including certification and standards organisations.

Sadly, adoption of multi-attribute life cycle thinking has been slow. Often, government, 3rd party standards organisations and industry support different approaches, and this leads to confusion throughout the value chain. While U.S. and European trade associations are coordinating their efforts, the drive for standardization and rationalization needs to be accelerated.

‘Keep On Trucking’!

Wherever you look, there are a range of hurdles that have to be overcome. Persistence is the key and in this regards I take further encouragement from the following quote dating from as far back as 1931:

“We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy – sun, wind and tide. I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

This quote comes from Thomas Edison. If only he was around today, the pace of sustainable development might well be enhanced!