Most people have partly filled pots of paint in the loft or garage, sitting there in case a wall needs touching up or a reinvigorating new coat. According to research carried out by Akzo Nobel, owner of ICI and Dulux, the average UK resident has about 17 paint pots stored away for future use. It estimates that roughly 50m litres a year end up in landfill or are incinerated.
As part of the company’s drive to improve the sustainability of all its operations, it applied for and received a Technology Strategy Board (TSB) grant of £25,000 to produce a feasibility study on how to improve paint recycling and reuse, using the idea of closed loop systems – those that retain materials within the economy over several cycles of use.
With this principle in mind, Akzo Nobel is looking at all parts of the paint recycling process – specifically water-based, decorative paint – to see if they can be improved.
“One of the difficulties of the UK’s recycling infrastructure is that everything is locally organised, which means there are different systems and different ways of reporting on waste,” says Chris Cook, Akzo Nobel’s global sustainable development director for the decorative paints business.
“One of the aims of this study is to find the most efficient way of working with the local infrastructure to recycle paint in an efficient way.
“The difficulty we have at the moment is getting the paint back from people who have bought it. People have a different mindset when buying paint unlike, say, a washing machine. Once they stop using it, they keep it for two or three years in case they need it, rather than get rid of it.”
Since 1993, Dulux has sponsored Community RePaint, a network of local paint reuse schemes that give leftover reusable paint to individuals, families, communities and charities in need. However, though this is effective, it doesn’t capture all unused paint across the country.
But the market is now developing. “There are a number of paint recycling/reuse operations already up and running, such as Newlife Paints in Sussex, but the challenge is to work out how to scale them up to national level,” says Cook.
Newlife reprocesses waste water-based paint and turns it back into a premium grade emulsion. All products in its paint range have a guaranteed minimum 50% recycled content, which is made up of waste paint that would otherwise be sent to landfill or incinerated.
“Newlife stands out because it is coming at this from a science-based perspective rather than one of bulk waste,” says Cook. “It is seeking to produce a high quality new product, which is why we’ve been interested in working with the company.
“Consumers have this idea that recycled stuff is lower quality. We don’t believe that’s the case, and we need to address that if we want to complete the circle.”
While these sorts of operations represent an effective method for collecting and recycling waste paint locally, work needs to be done to determine whether they could be scaled up to create a national network, or whether a different system is required.
As well as changing customer perceptions and designing better systems to collect, recycle and reuse old paint, turning into as-new paint for resale directly to the market, Akzo Nobel is also looking at how paint pot design could be improved to encourage reuse. Is there an efficient and effective way to decant used paint from old tins for reprocessing, after their collections, for instance?
The company’s approach to the challenges ahead is to work with a number of partners, including recycling and waste management company Veolia and Newlife Paints, to examine all parts of the supply chain. It has also brought Forum for the Future on board to ensure that whichever solution the feasibility study recommends, it does not increase the carbon footprint of the process.
“We want to make sure that by solving a waste problem we are not creating a carbon problem,” says Cook. “Although we might be directing a lot of paint out of landfill, by putting in a lot of transport and reprocessing, we could end up with quite a high-energy solution. This is the difficulty of this sort of thing – you can solve one problem but create another.”
The company has invested an estimated £20,000 of its own money to add to the TSB grant, and has to complete its feasibility study by the end of July. “By then it should have made a short film explaining the project and the issues around finding the best way to set up and deliver a national paint recycling scheme,” Cook adds.
For all those who curse every time they trip over half-empty pots of paint in the loft or garage, it will be essential viewing.
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