Value, quality, and performance – these fundamental elements have consistently influenced customer behaviour in the paint and coatings industry. However, over the last decade, the industry has witnessed the growth of a new driving factor, sustainability.

Powered by global megatrends, including digital transformation, increased social connectivity and globalisation, customers are empowered to transform their buying patterns to better meet the demand for a sustainable future, without compromising on cost or quality. Moreover, regulatory shifts, label requirements, and supply chain constraints are adding to the need for raw material innovation to fulfil all these needs at once.

Manufacturers have always been able to stay ahead of the game when deciphering which trends are likely to drive change. But as they look to tackle all these needs at once, how can they apply daring innovations to meet these trends head on?

Redefining sustainability

When we think of sustainability, often the first approach to innovation that comes to mind is reducing CO2 emissions and using bio-based ingredients. But is it correct to paint every sector with the same broad brush?

To ensure the best outcomes, the route towards more efficient and ecological products must be tailored to the manufacturing demands of the paint industry. Paint and coating products contain raw materials that can be a source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Not only can VOCs pose a health hazard but, when applied on an industrial scale, they can significantly contribute to air pollution and environmental damage.

Water-based products release fewer VOCs into the environment than solvent-based products and are therefore seen by consumers as “cleaner”. As such, a common misconception has spread among consumers that water-based products are more eco-friendly than their solvent-based alternatives.

Before coming to conclusions, it is important to view product sustainability from a holistic perspective – evaluating factors like process efficiency and product lifespan. Despite their immediate benefits, water-based paints and coatings are less tolerable to adverse weather conditions and are more prone to wear and damage. They therefore require multiple applications to ensure the same results as solvent-based products, ultimately using more paint and releasing more VOCs than initially thought. This has further implications when we include the additional manufacturing required and the subsequent CO2 emissions. To ensure truly eco-friendly products, paint and coating manufacturers must focus on developing more robust water-based products, and manufacturing solvent-based products with reduced VOC emissions.

Furthermore, it’s vital to recognise that promoting sustainability in the paint and coating industry extends beyond the product and involves the whole value chain. Whether it is minimising waste, encouraging energy and resource conservation, optimising process efficiency, or taking advantage of localised supply chains, many elements contribute to reducing the carbon footprint of a single pot of paint.

Preparing for better paint

Paint and coating manufacturers are already starting to address this by embedding a range of sustainable practices into their processes. This is best showcased in the recent increasing demand for alkyd resins, and the impacts of tightening supply and regulatory constraints for methyl ethyl ketoxime (MEKO) anti-skinning agents and cobalt materials.

Alkyd resins are polyester-based materials, of which over 50% of their composition is made up of natural oils and carboxylic acids derived from renewable plant sources. Due to their versatility, ease of application and good performance, they are utilised for varied applications in the coatings industry, especially protective coatings where they account for approximately half of all the resins consumed in the field.

These products dry via autoxidation when oxygen reacts with points of unsaturation based on fatty acids in the resin, a process which is accelerated by cobalt-based catalysts. Since cobalt catalysts are reactive to oxygen, an anti-skinning agent, such as MEKO, is often added to prevent the paint surface from forming a skin, ensuring storage stability.

However, recent regulatory shifts are creating significant challenges for alkyd coatings producers. Due to MEKO’s toxicity, in August 2020 it was confirmed by ECHA to be entered into Annex VI of CLP with an effective date of 1st March 2022, meaning that EU formulators cannot utilise MEKO if it meets or exceeds the concentration limit of 0.1% w/w in alkyd paints. At the same time, the rising popularity of electric vehicles is in turn increasing production rates for lithium-ion batteries and cobalt demands, leaving many fearing that in the next decade its supply will be unable to keep up with demand.

Although there are solutions to replace these ingredients, they will impact the drying and anti-skinning behaviour of products. These factors have made it increasingly important for alkyd producers to work closely with suppliers that offer a broad supply base and leverage their technical expertise to ensure the formulation of more sustainable and safer products.

Painting the bigger picture

It’s clear to see that the paint and coatings sector is heading toward a green future, but to get there it must work to paint the right path.

Acknowledging the multifaceted demands of sustainable development is the first step in the right direction but now the focus must be on encouraging collaboration among supply chain stakeholders and identifying key innovation opportunities. Success in these areas will allow the coatings industry to quickly meet real-time customer expectations. And, at the same time, continue to ensure that sustainable, cost-effective, and safe paint and coating products are not just a goal for the future, but a reality in the present.

To learn more on how to best navigate the evolving demands of the coatings industry, you can contact us.