Bio-based coatings overview: Increasing activities

Bio-based paints and coatings continue to play a rather small role in the coatings business. The current market share is estimated at around 5 % in sales. Most of this is also likely to come from long-established natural raw materials. However, something has been happening for some years now. 

The market is still too small for reliable data to be available; the mentioned 5 % market share in sales and and 1 % in volume is almost all that can be found in concrete figures on market size. The figure has also not changed for some time, and was communicated by the market research institute Chemquest as early as 2018, and is also found in exactly the same amount in their newsest global market analyis.

How to boost usage of bio-based coatings

How well the demand for bio-based coatings is developing varies considerably from region to region in Europe. Two countries stand out, however for very different reasons. One of them is the Netherlands. The country implemented a sustainable procurement catalogue for public tenders in July 2016 which states: “The higher the proportion of bio-based raw materials and/or recycled raw materials in the products supplied, the higher the value of the tender.” This makes it easier for bio-based solutions to be considered. The catalogue applies to a large variety of projects, from road building, marine projects, landscaping, construction and much more.

A different approach is taken in Switzerland. Here, a label called Umweltetikette ensures the spread of paints and varnishes based on renewable raw materials. If you want to achieve one of the highest two classes in the Swiss environmental label, you have to prove that your paints and varnishes contain 95 % renewable raw materials. The label is also awarded to adhesives, wood preservatives, plasters and fillers. The high level of acceptance among users is also likely to be ensured by the fact that the label also sets minimum performance requirements, such as wet abrasion resistance or contrast ratio.

Enviromental awareness important

Other countries that are developing comparatively well are the Scandinavian countries, in parts Germany and also France. For Tim Gratzke these are countries where the demand is carried by the increasing environmental awareness of the customers. Italy is also emerging as an attractive market. Here too, the customers play a decisive role.

Christian Walter from the paint and varnish manufacturer DAW believes that increasing environmental awareness alone will not be enough. “I’m not really a fan of too much regulation”, he explains, “but it won’t work without legislation altogether; we as a society as a whole are too slow for that. This could also help with a second problem. He does not see uniform standards for assessing sustainability as a further hurdle. “This unsettles committed end consumers and makes it more difficult for them to make sustainable purchasing decisions,” he explains.

Application plays a essential role

Frank Hezel, Vice President Resins and Additives EMEA of BASF, also emphasises the role of individual companies and industries: “The main driver is company-specific ambition: demand is being increasingly pushed by brand owners – in particular those from the furniture and flooring industry.” Other experts also agree with this.

Tim Gratzke of DSM sees the most potential in decorative applications such as wall paints. Here the bio-based resin is essential part of the product, while it becomes only a relatively smart part when the coating is used as part of a final product like furniture or a car.  

This is similarly true for DAW. This also has something to do with the requirements of the coating, as Christian Walter reports. “When you try to match up a technical demand with what you find in nature, often you will fall short and have to resort to “classical” solutions. Conversely, the lower the technical hurdles are, the more likely you are to find bio-based feedstocks directly useable for your application.”

BASF’s Frank Hezel says, “when it comes to buying decisions, the cost-performance-sustainability triangle needs to be considered.”

The performance of the bio-based products also plays a decisive role for the other experts. Tim Gratzke from DSM emphasises: “We don’t want to sacrifice performance.” It is also interesting to see which areas are not mentioned. These include in particular those coatings that place high demands on corrosion protection, such as industrial coatings or marine coatings. “Other industries may well also turn to bio-based coatings in the coming years as a result of overarching sustainability topics in, say, the automotive sector, for example electric vehicles,” Frank Hezel adds. The first products for this application are already available on the market.

How sustainable are bio-based coatings?

Not everything that comes from renewable sources is also sustainable. “Bio-based is not always equivalent to sustainable. This becomes very clear if we look at the damage that palm oil plantations cause the rain forest,” explains Frank Hezel. Christian Walter from DAW also has the issue on his radar and argues that it is not easy to tap into established food and feed supply chains, as this could destroy the price structure. Individual companies also take this very seriously in a credible way. However, reliable political framework conditions are lacking to ensure that it does not remain just with individuals. For example, the European Commission recognised years ago that it must promote a biobased recycling economy and, together with the chemical industry, launched the Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI-JU). This EUR 3.7 billion public-private initiative has been working on biobased raw materials since 2014.

However, there are problems with sustainability in particular. The non-governmental organisation Corporate Europe Observatory criticises that “Only 10 percent of all BBI-funded project coordinators predicted that their initiatives would have a positive impact on biodiversity, and only 27 percent anticipated having a positive impact on the sustainable management of natural resources.

Philippe Mengal, Executive Director of BBI JU has a slightly different opinion on this: “Although biodiversity was not an objective of BBI JU at its start in 2014, no project presenting a threat to biodiversity or a negative impact on the sustainable management of natural resources would have been selected for funding. Industry and EC have agreed that biodiversity will be one important objective of the new PPP under the Horizon Europe programme.”

Setback due to Corona?

Of course, it is reasonable to fear that the corona crisis might set back the switch to bio-based coatings. It seems clear that the drop in oil prices will have a negative impact on the competitiveness of bio-based coatings. But Tim Gratzke of DSM also sees opportunities. Since a lot of renovation work is currently being carried out through home office and short-time working, sales in the decorative paint sector, which is particularly important for the sale of bio-based raw materials, have recently increased. In addition, people currently have more time to inform themselves. 

Frank Hezel admits that there may be delays at present due to Covid-19. In the long term, he also sees great opportunities: “A severe crisis such as this will fuel strategic discussions in the value chain and the next big bets. Governments are evaluating ways of stimulating their countries’ economies through specific programs, some of them targeted towards pushing sustainable solutions. This may well be a big opportunity.” Tim Gratzke agrees: “I do not expect to much of a negative effect because of the Corona crisis because companies that invest in bio-based materials made a long term strategic decision.”

Costs of bio-based coatings?

Another factor is the issue of cost. Oil, for example, is a very volatile raw material in terms of price, even though renewable raw materials are of course also subject to fluctuations, although these are usually less pronounced. For Christian Walter of DAW, the argument of price stability is mainly used to do business with farmers. The chemical industry is sometimes a more attractive partner than the food industry. “We do not necessarily offer higher prices, but more stable ones,” he explains.

The price situation will remain the most important factor alongside performance for the foreseeable future. But at least something seems to be moving here. Tim Gratzke of DSM, for example, points to upscaling effects that lead to falling prices for bio-based coatings. 

In the short term in particular, many companies are also using raw materials based on the drop-in principle. In this case, biobased raw materials are produced in combination with existing production facilities using fossil raw materials. A major player here is BASF with its biomass balance process. This offers the opportunity to change over quickly and also cheaply. “While materials and quality remain the same, our customers can switch to biomass-balance products immediately, without the need for requalification”, explains Hezel. However, new types of raw materials are also being used, as the gold of pleasure project of Worlée and DAW shows. Here, a new biobased binder is obtained that does not compete with food production, but in contrast can even increase the yield of pea fields.

According to Philippe Mengal from the BBU JU the use of biomass for producing materials has increased overall by 5.6 % from 2010 to 2015 and within this category, the bio-based chemical sectors showed the highest relative increase (+48.4 %). If activities will go on at this rate, we may see a greener coatings industry rather sooner than later.      

By Jan Gesthuizen

Event tip

On 6-7 October 2020 international experts on bio-based coatings and raw materials will come together in Berlin to discuss latest findings and innovations in this area at the European Coatings Technology Forum | Bio-based Coatings. The event will follow a detailed hygiene concept to ensure the safety of all participants.

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