In past blogs, sustainable development in the coatings industry has been linked closely with innovation. The belief that we cannot make substantial progress on the basis of the current raft of technologies is generally accepted, and innovators are continually coming forward with announcements about new materials and processes at conferences, in trade magazines and in academic literature. One has only to look at statements concerning a new process for the manufacture of titanium dioxide, renewable sources of additives and binders, new ingredients that enhance the properties of coatings, and new efforts to recycle waste paint, that it becomes evident that the coatings industry has the opportunity to move forward. However, technology change in itself does not deliver results in the marketplace and, having led teams to introduce new products into the Americas myself, I recognise how much effort and time is required to get new ideas accepted.

Promotional material for new products or processes should include reference to environmental performance although, as is often the case in marketing, there is a tendency to emphasise those aspects that are particularly attractive while underplaying less favourable properties. Some companies have been accused of ‘Greenwash’, making unjustified environmental claims in the absence of specific measures or standards. Since the coatings industry is far from agreeing upon a definitive set of environmental measures, and very few countries have legislated against false environmental claims, downstream industries have to work their way through any one of 44 Life Cycle Analysis methods and over 400 different environmental labels around the world to evaluate new materials accurately. Given this confusion, no wonder many coatings companies are slow to accept new formulation ingredients, often explaining that coatings applicators are very conservative and do not like change.

Even if the customer is prepared to entertain the idea of a new ingredient or formulation, there is still a classic case of Catch 22 waiting in the wings to put up further road blocks. Many of the renewable materials currently offered are more expensive than the traditional materials they are targeted to replace. Much of this lack of cost competitiveness is derived from the present low volume of demand, which fails to benefit from economies of scale.

One hears of innovators sitting in front of coatings purchasing agents keen to promote the use of environmentally friendly products, only to be told that they will not be considered unless there are immediate cost savings versus existing materials together with large-scale production to ensure reliable supply. Coatings manufacturers may have robust sustainable targets at the corporate level, but one still has to convince the purchasing agent that any new option is economically feasible.

As is often the case, it is the smaller entrepreneurial companies that are coming up with many of the new products, such as those based on bio-renewable raw materials. Without early sales in small quantities and often at prices in excess of those of the target to be replaced, there is little justification for further manufacturing investment. So the innovation dies on the vine?

How does one deal with this impasse? Here are a few ways forward:

  • Wait until some supply crisis occurs that motivates customers to seek alternative sources of materials or technologies.
  • Argue that a crisis is not far away and that the customer urgently needs to enhance the diversity of its supply options to ensure it is fully prepared for any contingency.

Both of these approaches are hardly progressive ways of moving forward towards a more sustainable world! Alternatively, one can take more positive approaches by:  

  • Seeking ways of reducing the cost of a new product to make it immediately financially as well as environmentally attractive by;
    • Introducing process refinements that cut costs without increasing environmental footprint;
    • piggy-backing on other developments that employ the same technology or process to economically produce materials that have been successfully promoted for other markets;
    • utilizing by-products priced at marginal cost derived from other manufacturing processes.       
  • ·Repositioning an innovation to emphasise the benefits it offers in terms of coatings functionality to underline its value in use.  
  • Speeding technology development and enhancing value to downstream markets by engaging in joint venture arrangements in which there is a pooling of information from different positions in the coatings supply chain.

Many of these elements have been followed by Corbion Purac, a company that manufactures Lactide from bio-renewable sources. Lactide is a commercially available raw material that can be used in the manufacture of resins and binders using polycondensation (e.g. polyester) chemistry. Lactide offers a lower carbon footprint than the materials it is targeted to replace. The company has enhanced the competiveness of Lactide by:

  • taking a stage out of the manufacturing process, which reduces production cost and improves environmental footprint;
  • emphasising in its marketing material improved performance benefits such as:
    • lower resin viscosity for higher solid solvent-based formulations;
    • reduced solvent requirement leading to lower VOC levels plus improved cost efficiency;
    • the ability to tune drying time behavior in air-drying decorative applications;
    • improved hardness and adhesion, combined with improved chemical and corrosion resistance.

Corbion Purac has also entered into a joint venture company with BASF named Succinity to explore the business opportunities for succinic acid; another material manufactured using bio-renewable chemistry.

The opportunities are there, but success does not come easily in these ever-changing and challenging times.

Just need to keep plugging away!