Fighting hard for a sustainable future

What is the sexiest word in business, right now?  Expansion?  Profitable?  Low-cost?  True, all are exciting notions.  But the one word guaranteed to get the juices flowing is ‘sustainable’.  Humans are damaging the environment  -  climate change, resource depletion, carbon emissions  -  and if we don’t change our ways  -  sustain and protect the planet  -  things will only get worse.  Hence, products that are ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ are increasingly what sell.

But for businesses to be truly sustainable, it goes beyond that.  Powder coatings have strong environmental credentials  -  no VOCs, no harmful substances, low waste, low energy consumption  -  but we want every part of our business to be sustainable.  “It’s more important we produce the right products from the chain point of view,” says Jaap van den Akker, HSE and Sustainability Manager.  “That means looking at our raw materials, our energy resources, our waste, how the product is used, and how it ends its life.”

AkzoNobel, as a Group, has ambitious targets, including: reduction of our carbon footprint by 20-25% by 2020 (based on 2008 levels); eco-efficiency assessments on investments above €5 million; and a position in the top three of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for the Chemicals sector.

How are we going about it?  First, we’re putting our own house in order.  “Waste reduction is the biggest area we can control,” says Akker.  “Every one kilogram of powder-related waste that we reduce, means one kilogram less in raw materials which, in turn, means we lower our carbon footprint.”  We’re not only recycling unused stock but introducing Fines Compactors to our production lines.  These collect the ultra-fine waste powder (pure powder particles that make up around 25% of the waste) produced during milling, to re-process to the correct particle size.  Potentially, this means we can rescue around 2% of powder product  -  or 4000 tonnes  -  that is being lost each year.

Any waste that can’t be reduced or re-used, we look for another outlet rather than send to landfill.  “In Felling, UK, for example, we send it to a composting company,” explains Akker.  “Other countries have set up partnerships with brick or cement manufacturers.”  In most cases this is done on a “costs neutral” basis; no handling charges to take it away, no price charged for the product.

Our second step to increased sustainability, is to go back to the beginning, to our suppliers.  “We made an assessment of our carbon footprint and discovered 90% was produced by our raw materials, only 10% in our manufacturing processes,” says Akker.  “It becomes critical that we work with suppliers to help them reduce their footprint.  In the longer term, we’d like them to move from petrochemicals-based resins to more agricultural-based, and we’re helping them move that way.  In the shorter-term, we’re looking at their current processes, such as energy usage and waste, to see how these can be reduced.”

Our third step is to help customers improve their processes; for example, more efficient curing ovens or thinner film coatings.  We also encourage customers to buy our eco-premium products  -  such as particle-managed powders  -  which, through eco-efficiency analysis, are proven to be more sustainable on a number of key criteria  -  such as toxicity, energy efficiency, solvent levels  -  than competing products.

Last, but not least, we look at how we can make our products more sustainable.  “The majority of our R&D is now focused on developing energy-efficient curing methods,” says Akker.  “Low-temperature curing and, increasingly, radiation curing.”

The key point, however, is that these steps must not be done in isolation.  “To do something substantial about sustainability we have to look at the situation ‘before’ and ‘after’ our manufacturing process,” says Akker.  “We want to work together with our customers and suppliers towards a common goal.”