Looking back over the past year, it may be my imagination but I did not seem to hear the word ‘sustainability’ referred to as often as I used to in the trade press, and the mouths of politicians and industrialists. Wherever you are in the world, the priority seems to have switched to the quest for economic growth and increased employment levels. While praiseworthy goals in themselves, it occurs to me to ask if sustainability has become yesterday’s story?


Carbon Dioxide and Climate Change

From the viewpoint of those who worry about carbon dioxide, nothing has changed to alter the growing concern of many that climate change is upon us and is predominately man made. Current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 400+ppm were last reached 3-5 million years ago when the sea level was 20 cm higher. The world continues to press for increased industrial growth and consume finite resources at a rate that would require several worlds to sustain them, and we continue to hear of water shortages and a growing concentration of waste products in the oceans of the world. Hardly a moment to sit back and relax!

However, there is some good news from which we can all take heart. BP has recently reported that Global CO2 emissions from energy use were essentially flat in 2016 (and so far in 2017), with the U.S. recording the largest reduction to CO2 emissions for a second consecutive year due principally to reductions in U.S. coal-related emissions partly offset by growth in oil- and gas-related emissions. Other significant declines were seen in China, Brazil, Russia, the UK and Japan.

On the negative side of the account, India recorded the largest increment in CO2 emissions for a third consecutive year. Growth in emissions from coal and oil accounted for nearly all of the increase. Other significant increases were seen in Indonesia, Turkey, Ukraine, Malaysia and Pakistan.

The United States is, by this measure, moving in the right direction. The U.S. government recently released its National Climate Assessment, calling human activity the dominant driver of global warming. While this is a conclusion that is at odds with White House decisions to withdraw from the Paris international climate accord, many States of the Union continue to make emissions reduction a major priority. This is certainly the case in California, New York and the States in the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast, which together represent a substantial part of the U.S. population.


The Coatings Industry Response: Measurement and Delivery

The coatings industry has played its part over many years in addressing sustainability issues. Products have been reformulated to reduce the need for solvents; manufacturing processes made more efficient; packaging changed; the protection given by coatings to downstream materials improved, and waste paint recycling schemes launched. It has been a demanding journey that cannot stop here! But where are the new initiatives coming from to keep the ball rolling?

Industry and regulators continue to struggle with the challenge to define what GOOD looks like, and much attention is given to the development and acceptance of Product Category Rules (PCRs) that are key to the measurement of sustainability.

In my search for new initiatives, I was cheered to learn that the American Coatings Association (ACA) plans a number of new projects in 2018 building on past successes with its PaintCare programme for the recycling of waste paint and the development of a PCR for architectural paint. The next challenge will be the adaption of the existing PCR to develop an ISO 14025-compliant life cycle assessment (LCA) and environmental PCR for resinous floor coatings. The ACA is also developing comprehensive LCA models that conform to appropriate ISO standards and PCRs to highlight the sustainability benefits of biocides/preservatives.

In Europe, the four year Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) Paint Pilot program, led by the European trade federation (CEPE) and facilitated by the European Union Commission, will be completed in February 2018. Four draft PCRs will be published, which can be utilized to evaluate varying grades of architectural paints on their performance from cradle to grave. There are plans to harmonize and streamline both data sources and measurement methods under the unifying stamp of the EU.

One company, the Beckers Group, has gone ahead and developed the Beckers Sustainability Index (BSI) to quantify the sustainability of the products it develops and sells. This index provides a measure of both the material and the functional sustainability of its products.

But defining how to measure sustainability is not an end in itself, and delivery of improvements is critical. AkzoNobel has recently opened its most sustainable paint manufacturing plant ever in Ashington, England. The site, winner of this year’s Sustainable Innovation Award from the British Coatings Federation (reference http://joom.ag/jXKL), has pioneered a unique process technology system that radically reduces environmental impacts. AkzoNobel Decorative Paints UK has already reduced its carbon footprint by 25%, water usage by 34% and waste by 42% over the last five years. The new plant is forecast to achieve further reductions of 50% carbon and 50% waste compared to the sites that it replaces, and will reuse 100% of wash water and 90% of solvent. I call that putting the company’s commitment to sustainability, its resources and expertise to excellent use.


The Future Impact of Acquisitions and Mergers

Whatever 2018 brings, we can be sure there will be more talk of acquisitions and mergers in the coatings field. AkzoNobel, PPG, Axalta and Nippon Paint are already active. Investments that lead to sustainable development are, by their very nature, long term, and the commitment to these initiatives has to be embedded deep in a company’s culture to survive and prosper. I noted in the recent AkzoNobel press release that ‘from the outset, embedding quality, diversity, sustainability and community were at the heart of Ashington’s culture’. When the accountants calculate the financial synergies to be gained by coalescing companies, I do hope that thought will be given to the culture of the new company. It would be a tragedy if future mergers and acquisitions led to a dilution of the industry’s commitment to sustainable development.

A sustainable and prosperous New Year to all.