Green giant of the chemical industry

How green are you?  A bright lime green, or deep and rich like a pine forest?  Powder Coatings has always considered itself a healthy, environmentally-friendly green because its products, unlike solvent-based paints, contain negligible VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds).  When released into the atmosphere, VOCs can cause high concentrations of ozone.  Equally, anodised aluminium, another competing technology, is a more energy-intensive process.

However, as Powder Coatings had little scientific proof of its green credentials, it could neither give convincing reassurance to customers nor could it see where there might be room for improvement.  “Although we’re the Number 1 chemical company in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, which is a measurement of how sustainable a business’s operations are, other companies are keen to topple us from that position,” says Russell Deane, European Marketing Manager, Architectural and Furniture.  “We wanted to understand the components of our products and our manufacturing processes so that we could see where we could make improvements.”

Enter AkzoNobel’s Sustainable Development department.  Based in Gothenburg, Sweden, this department has been looking at the company’s environmental and sustainability issues for more than 10 years.  “More recently, we have focused on eco-efficiency studies as these combine both environmental impact and financial information within one study,” explains Kjerstin Ludvig one of the department’s environmental economics engineers.  “The studies look at the whole product life cycle and are a good way to communicate environmental information to people who aren’t working with it on a daily basis.”

The department carried out eco-efficiency studies on products for two Powder Coatings’ markets -  architectural (mainly window frames) and automotive (car wheels and car body paint).  The former was chosen because architects are keen environmental champions; the latter because it is a highly price-sensitive sector.

The studies, literally, took a cradle-to-grave examination of the products,  taking into account associated energy, transport, packaging and waste costs for customers in  the States, France, Spain and China.  For the car industry, the team confined itself to the States although it took a rigorous approach  -  for example, looking at whether different configurations of paint layers (primer, main, sealant) made any difference.  At each stage, comparable figures were taken of the principle alternative technologies.

The results, presented in December 2007, while not unexpected  -  they confirmed that powder coatings are more eco-efficient than competing technologies  -  still held some surprises.  “We thought the raw materials’ extraction and manufacturing processes would be the dominating factors,” admits Deane.  “Yet the application processes were where most energy was expended and waste generated.”

In other words, says Ludvig, there is scope for improvement -  but by the end-user.  “We can now advise our customers how to improve their ‘eco-efficiency’ by, for example, decreasing the curing temperature or using a thinner layer of powder.”

The study’s benefits, therefore, were broader than anticipated.  While they have given a persuasive argument for choosing powder coatings, they have also thrown up ‘added value’ for customers as well as opened up the possibility of entering the car body paint market  -  still largely virgin territory for Powder Coatings.