A welcoming, bright-yellow front door, pristine white kitchen cabinets, and a red accent wall in the living room all demonstrate how color transforms a home. Something as simple as a fresh coat of paint can take the blank slate of a house and give it a vibrant, personalized touch. As it happens, the chemistry behind that transformative coat of paint isn’t as simple as it may appear.
Oil-based alkyd paint has long been used by professional painters and homeowners for its durability, adhesion, and high-gloss properties. Alkyd resin, an oil-modified polyester, serves as the binder in this type of paint, which helps it adhere well to surfaces. For decades, the overall performance of alkyds—particularly in high-traffic, tough-use areas—easily surpassed that of water-based paints.
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Alkyd paint, despite its utility, has a major disadvantage: Compared to water-based paint, alkyds contain high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When this paint dries, these VOCs evaporate, drift into the atmosphere, and become air pollutants—contributing to ground-level ozone and smog. Studies have found that high levels of VOCs are associated with greater prevalence of asthma in people living in newly painted homes.
Companies attempted to create water-based, acrylic alkyds to get the best of both worlds. Paint performance suffered, though, drying too quickly and changing consistency after sitting on the shelf. And, thus, the dilemma: If a paint company wants to be environmentally responsible by cutting down on VOCs, how can it without settling for a lesser product?
Chemical companies that value sustainability face conundrums like this on a regular basis. In the last three decades, fields like green chemistry and green engineering have emerged, emphasizing the design of eco-friendly products and processes. There may also be a financial advantage, since companies will likely see greater profit and innovation by integrating sustainability, experts say.
In fact, according to a 2015 report from the American Sustainable Business Council and the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council, market growth, capital flows, and market demand for eco-friendly products are all on a five-year growth trajectory. The report found that sales worth of green-chemistry products is outpacing conventional-chemistry products at both multinational and local companies. The report projects that the global market worth for green chemistry will increase from $11 billion in 2015 to nearly $100 billion by 2020.
The rise of industrial sustainability
The movement for environmental and biological protection, which began in the middle of the 20th century, has evolved into the broader field of sustainability. In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission’s report characterized sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Sustainability is the complex global movement of environmental and human-health protection that also incorporates diverse social responsibility and economic practices. In particular, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development defines industrial sustainability as the continuous innovation, improvement, and use of clean technologies to reduce pollution and consumption of resources.
Because the chemical industry creates materials for a number of other sectors, such as construction, transportation, and health, chemical companies that embrace industrial sustainability can make a significant global impact. They have focused on advanced biofuels, bio-based products, catalysis, renewable chemicals, waste transformation, and others, resulting in success stories that include biodegradable plastics, safer feedstock, and more sustainable coatings and solvents.
“The chemical industry has had 200 years of amazing performance in everything from the way we grow our food to communication to transportation—but we’ve gotten this far while employing unsustainable practices,” says Paul Anastas, Director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale University. Anastas, known as the “father of green chemistry,” adds, “Green chemistry is about getting that same performance but using practices that are good for the environment.”
An example comes from scientists at a leading paint manufacturer, who recognized an opportunity to create a water-based acrylic alkyd paint with low VOCs that still offers the high performance of traditional alkyds. Using an alkyd-acrylic polymer dispersion, the paint retains high gloss and adhesion properties while remaining eco-friendly with the low VOC emissions. The dispersion is made from recycled soda-bottle plastic, acrylics, and soybean oil, reflecting another green aspect of the product. Since then, the company has eliminated the use of over 800,000 pounds of solvents that produce VOCs, as well as other petroleum-based feedstocks. In 2011, the water-based acrylic alkyd technology won a prestigious award for designing greener chemicals.
Multiple factors drive the rise of sustainable business practices in the chemical industry. The limited availability of resources such as raw materials, water, and energy influence companies’ decisions, particularly since the low supply of resources can mean higher costs. Government regulations, such as those covering emissions of greenhouse gases, also have an effect on the industry.
“Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of a product’s potential impact on the environment, and that type of customer often demands sustainability,” says David T. Allen, the Melvin H. Gertz Regents Chair in Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. “Consumer views on a company or product can have direct economic implications.”
Best practices for the future
So how can chemical companies looking to embrace industrial sustainability take the first step? Allen points to a wealth of online resources, including the ACS Green Chemistry Institute’s Industrial Roundtables. Companies can find information relevant to their sector, such as selecting the best green solvents and commonly used reaction pathways known to minimize waste. The Institute for Sustainability, part of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, has a similar online resource pointing businesses in the right direction.
Anastas advises businesses to study his “12 Principles of Green Chemistry.” The list, which outlines areas of sustainability across the lifecycle of a product, includes principles such as preventing waste, designing for energy efficiency when possible, and using renewable rather than depleting feedstocks.
“It’s astounding that, with as many examples as I can give of processes and products that have been reinvented using green chemistry, there are probably just as many or far more that have yet to be reinvented,” says Anastas. “There is so much power and potential that has yet to be realized by the chemical industry, and because of this, I think the future looks bright.”
Indeed, all major paint manufacturers now offer their own versions of no- or low-VOC paints and coatings. Improved formulations have led to more sustainable options that retain the high paint performance that homeowners demand. The rising interest in the popular LEED certification for green buildings mean more commercial construction projects are seeking out paint that meet the demands of eco-friendliness. With today’s innovations in technology and growing spirit of sustainability, the chemical industry can truly impact the environment—and human health—for the better with colorful flair.
PRECIPITATING THE CONVERSATION
Why is the chemical industry focusing on sustainability?
There’s a real emphasis on, and understanding of, the role that chemical companies like Chemours must play. It’s about how we make what we make and how we’re using precious resources as best we can—being mindful of the downstream products and how they contribute to a sustainable future.
Which industries are ripe for sustainable solutions?
With the really important things it creates for people, the automobile industry has a large effect on the world. Air conditioning keeps cars comfortable, and refrigeration in trucks preserves food and medicine. With Opteon™ refrigerants, we’ve been in a leadership position for those systems, helping them run in the most efficient, environmentally sound ways.
Likewise, textile manufacturing has a huge impact on the planet. Chemours makes the renewably sourced durable water repellent in Teflon EcoElite™, which is used in outerwear apparel. It’s a perfect example of how we’ve used the power of chemistry to create and deliver essential performance that leads to more sustainable products.
How is the chemical industry transforming?
There is constant product evolution because the science continues to advance as we learn more and are faced with new challenges. Our understanding has evolved enormously over time. It’s so important to us at Chemours that we are really mindful; we’re always learning and growing. Sustainability is what’s framing our vision of the future—the actions that we have to take to contribute to a healthy world while keeping our company successful and relevant.
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Sponsored content is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of C&EN’s editorial staff. It is authored by writers approved by the C&EN BrandLab and held to editorial standards expected in C&EN magazine stories, with the intent of providing valuable information to C&EN readers. This sponsored content feature has been produced with funding support from The Chemours Company.