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For a time, the U.S. lagged behind Europe and other parts of the world in
developing eco-friendly coatings. In 2005, however, the House of
Representatives passed the Green Chemistry Research & Development Act.
Though the bill did not ultimately become law, it increased awareness of green
chemistry practices and foretold an era of environmental consciousness in the
industry. If green coatings are becoming the new normal, it’s due as much to
consumers’ increasing savvy as to federal policy. Together, these forces
continue to drive innovation.

Green coatings are nothing new, of course. Ancient Egyptian, Asian, and
European cultures mixed raw natural pigments like turmeric with plant oil or
egg yolk to make paint. Then, as now, its function was twofold: decoration and
protection. The early 1900s saw the dawn of mass production, which involved
not only pigments and binders but also additives and solvents, which inevitably
included volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs can lead to smog
formation in cities and nausea, headaches, and even long-term health
problems in people. Until 1960, paint could theoretically contain as many
VOCs, and as much lead, as manufacturers preferred to use.

Paint’s unregulated status began to change in the mid-’60s. In 1966, in an
effort to battle rampant air pollution, Los Angeles instituted Rule 66, a policy
limiting VOCs in coatings and solvents. This was followed in 1967 by the Clean
Air Act, a federal measure that echoed L.A.’s groundbreaking law. The
government updated the CAA in 1990, adding a list of 189 toxins that had to
be reduced in the environment. At the same time, the Environmental
Protection Agency listed pollution sources by area and indicated which carbon
compounds didn’t produce smog, and were thus exempt from VOC regulations.

While government restrictions are often thought to stunt creativity, the
aforementioned laws prompted a great deal of new, forward-thinking research.
The coatings industry’s four main avenues of exploration were water-based,
powder, high-solid, and radiation-curable coatings. Of these, water-based
coatings became and remain the most popular green coating type in the U.S.
In 1992, Glidden Company produced the first VOC-free coatings. They
cost more than conventional coatings, and consumers largely ignored
them. Other innovations weren’t far behind, however. Petroleum-based
monomers – a key ingredient in paint film – could be replaced, it seemed,
by monomers derived from castor or soy oil. And though vegetable oil
sometimes produced paint that yellowed or didn’t weather well, it was at
least inexpensive and abundant.

Since the government had no immediate plans to develop universal criteria
for green coatings, nonprofits rose to the challenge. Green Seal is
probably the best known; others include Environmental Home Center;
Building Green, whose “Green Spec” directory lists eco-friendly products
online; and the U.S. Green Building Council, creator of LEED certification,
which considers materials and indoor environmental quality, among other
factors. Green Seal’s GS-11, a standard for regular paint, looks at a
product’s overall environmental performance, not just its lifecycle. (More
on that distinction shortly.) In addition, the EPA’s Green Chemistry Institute
(GCI) works on eco-friendly initiatives and gives awards to other
innovators in categories like “alternative solvent pathways.”
Europe’s VOC regulations differ from America’s in that they pay more attention to chemicals’ volatility than to their reactivity. Thus, some fast-evaporating
solvents that pass muster in the U.S. are prohibited in the European Union, while substances with a boiling point above 250 degrees Celsius are exempt
from regulation in the EU. The strictness of Europe’s policies puts pressure on the U.S. to enact similar measures. Due to the manpower, material and
energy costs, and rising insurance premiums associated with conventional processes and products, the American coatings industry is also getting
greener of its own volition.

One interesting recent trend-within-the-trend is sustainable chemistry. Whereas green chemistry demands total biodegradation of products (the “total
environmental performance” perspective, referenced above), sustainable chemistry proposes recycling and/or reusing as solutions (the “lifecycle”
approach). The chief advantage of the latter strategy? Lower costs. Currently, the International Center for Sustainable Chemistry is partnering with the
EPA to look at cost-effective sustainable alternatives to traditional methods. The GCI, mentioned earlier, is also exploring sustainability.

In order to succeed in the marketplace, green coatings must perform as well as, and cost no more than, their conventional counterparts. Thanks to the
sharp increase in consumer awareness during the last decade or so, many companies now develop eco-friendly products not because regulations
require them to, but because it makes good business sense. The innovation certainly isn’t limited to our shores; in Brazil, a company called Braskem has
invented a high-density polyethylene made from sugarcane-based ethanol. While green coatings clearly benefit the planet, they’re also a smart
investment for manufacturers of every stripe.
TCP Painting
711 Medford Center #374
Medford, OR 97504