Sustainable development in the United States went up several notches in political priority following the recent speech on Climate Change by President Obama. This initiative was echoed at the same time by the launch of the Climate Declaration signed at its inception by 40 large companies, including IKEA and GM, together with 350 SMEs around the United States. The President’s commitment to climate change is also being strongly supported by a number of NGOs that have as their primary purpose the promotion, acceptance and delivery of sustainable development. 

Previous PCI sustainability blogs have emphasised that the world has a real problem going forward if it is going to cater for increased population, given the finite nature of its material resources and an environment that is getting increasingly cluttered by waste. While the U.S. political focus is currently on energy efficiency improvement and reduction in carbon pollution, achievement of these goals will demand long-term attention to all three pillars of sustainability.

It was Albert Einstein who is attributed to have defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. The President has recognised that to address climate change, ‘we’ll need engineers to devise new technologies, and we’ll need businesses to make and sell those technologies’, emphasising the critical link between sustainable development and technical innovation. 

So, what can the coatings industry do to change and innovate to deliver sustainable development? The answer lies in two elements. Firstly, a continuous focus on product and process improvement is essential, utilizing the research and development capabilities of not only the coatings industry, but also the chemicals and plastics industries that supply raw materials. Secondly, the impact of any changes and developments needs to be measured.

Many paint producers have already streamlined manufacturing processes and delivered a wide range of savings, such as:

  • Energy reduction to reduce carbon footprints;
  • Closed-loop systems to reduce emissions;
  • Moving tinting to as late in the production process as possible to reduce production waste;
  • Rain harvesting and recycling into first quality paint to minimise overall water usage.

The industry has also been active in reformulating coatings that provide more environmentally friendly products with performance equivalent to the products they replace. Examples include:

  • Reduced-VOC-content paints (including the zero-VOC offer of powder coatings);
  • Transition from solvent to waterborne coatings;
  • Sourcing renewable raw materials;
  • Lower carbon footprint replacement raw materials (e.g. opacifiers).

Some innovations provide enhanced properties that have significant impact on the downstream sustainability of the materials the coatings protect. Examples include:

  • Enhanced longevity;
  • Improved weathering;
  • Scratch resistance/healing;
  • Novel properties such as heat absorption/insulation (e.g. ceramic-loaded paints).

In some countries of the world, the coatings industry already tracks its performance in terms of emissions, material usage, energy consumption, landfill and VOC content in a programme entitled Coatings Care®, and some very significant improvements have already been made and measured in the industry’s performance over the last 10 years. 

So, where next? With coatings manufacturers continuing to work on product developments, they have to adapt to the pressures and demands around them. 

Remembering President Obama’s recent speech on climate change, government regulation will undoubtedly play a role in driving sustainable improvement and ensure a level playing field. However, the current wide range of approaches worldwide is very confusing for multi-national paint manufacturers who are expected to meet whatever requirements are legislated, depending on the country being supplied. (Oh, for a consistent set of standards and regulations worldwide!). 

Some elements of leadership are already coming from progressive companies downstream of the coatings manufacturers who have already recognised pressures from their customers, the consumers, and are giving the coatings industry some broad hints on the way forward.

For example, IKEA has estimated that across its global product range, nearly 40 percent of the sources of carbon dioxide are derived beyond its factory gate. The company’s published goals for 2015 include the following product-related targets:

  • 90 percent of our sales value shall come from home furnishing products classified as “more sustainable” in the IKEA Sustainability Product Score Card.
  • All materials for IKEA home furnishing products shall be renewable, recyclable or recycled.
  • IKEA energy-consuming products shall on average be 50 percent more efficient than what were available on the market in 2008.

In the DIY sector, one company in the UK (B&Q) has gone on the record as encouraging the coatings industry to focus its innovation and development processes on:

  • Material choice;
  • Lifetime extension;
  • Re-manufacture, i.e. recycling;
  • Carbon saving for the customer;
  • Material saving for the customer.

Sounds very sensible! 

So, there is much that has already been achieved and plenty more to go at. When you think back to the solvent-based paints that dominated the decorative coatings market 10 or more years ago now replaced by waterborne products on grounds of environmental improvement, it is not at all far-fetched to predict that the coatings of 10 years time will bear very little resemblance to the products of the past or indeed those of today.

-Tony Mash, President, TMA Consulting Inc.