Seen as the enemy of the earth, the common view has been that chemical manufacturers are responsible for a range of problems as they produce and pump unnatural hazardous substances into the ecosystem.
For a long time, that was true. Raw chemicals/ resins have been traditionally manufactured using highly toxic and difficult to recycle solvents. The finished polymers, resins or waxes would have traditionally been hosted in solvent-based formulations which are then passed downstream. These are then used by the likes of coatings, adhesive, construction or textile manufacturers to formulate finished goods or enhance their physical properties. Application examples could be binding, tackifying, waterproofing, strengthening, adding scratch resistance or improving the gloss of the finish.
This meant that the toxicity of the chemicals (and responsibility for handling/disposal) was being passed down the value chain and ultimately onto the end user or customer.
In recent years this has become a problem. Traditional solvent-based solutions produce a lot of chemical waste. They also have a high Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) score, which means that their environmental footprint is significantly higher for everyone further down the value chain, right to the end user. VOCs are important as they are the emissions that are released from chemical products long after they are applied to their final substrate.
So, the market had an image problem. There were too many chemicals involved in the production of chemicals. This has ultimately led to the creation and use of water-based, or waterborne chemicals.
Waterborne chemicals create far less chemical waste when used as the host solvent isn’t harmful – it’s water. One of the only other by-products are trace amounts of surfactant, used to help emulsify/disperse the resin in the water. The end result of this is a lower VOC score, more efficient processes and ultimately less waste.
However whilst they’re undoubtedly kinder to the environment, for a long time water-based chemicals had a reputation for being less effective than a solvent-based alternative. It was widely believed that performance in their finished form as a coating or adhesive wasn’t up to scratch. This meant issues like longer drying times, lower strength, poor gloss retention or difficulty in application. But that’s changed in recent years.
I speak with candidates and clients from all over the chemicals market every day. In the years I’ve been working in this industry I’ve noticed a huge shift in both mindset and practice as more and more companies look to waterborne chemicals as an alternative to solvents, even re-formulating existing products with waterborne resins.
This is down to a couple of reasons. In recent years global attitudes have changed and there are huge pressures on companies right the way through the value chain to be more sustainable. This is then backed up by the sharp increase in performance of waterborne chemicals. All of a sudden, they can compete with, and even outperform, their solvent-based cousins.
I’ve taken a look at 7 companies flying the flag for water-based chemicals, all of whom are producing environmentally friendly and high performing water-based resins and formulations. These businesses are all investing heavily in reduction of toxic waste and VOC emissions, and commercial interest in their waterborne products is continuing to increase.
Allnex are renowned as a leader in the resins market, and are using more and more water as a solvent to meet high regulatory demands. They specialise in water-based resins, which produce environmentally friendly products low in both toxicity and flammability.
Allnex are targeting close-to-zero VOC score for their products in future.
Trinseo have been producing latex-binders for over 60 years, to improve durability, flexibility and resistance, for a variety of applications including adhesives, textiles, paper and construction.
They have multiple ranges of styrene-butadiene and styrene-acrylic binders in water, including low-VOC, low-odour, formaldehyde-free and APEO-free products to substantially reduce environmental impact.
With 67% of their sales attributed to the Textile market, Archroma could face an uphill battle as textiles has a reputation as a particularly damaging industry. However, their water-based emulsions go a long way to improving the sustainability of yarn, fabric and fibre processing.
In their sustainability reports, Archroma highlight 12 principles of green chemistry, including waste/ pollution prevention, improving yields, renewable feedstocks and designing safer products altogether.
British based chemicals specialist Synthomer have a range of waterborne products in their portfolio. A particular area of strength for them is their waterborne binders used in coatings and adhesives products – largely focused on acrylic and vinyl chemistries.
Low VOC, waterborne products in this area like Synthomer’s help paints on a range of surfaces achieve adhesion, high gloss levels and retention among other properties.
Synthomer have bolstered their portfolio of WB products through the acquisition of Omnova Solutions which completed in April 2020. Omnova’s expertise spans a wide range of industries and markets, covering everything from adhesives to oil & gas to hospitality and textiles. They have approved and commercialised multiple new products which aim to aid customers in transitioning from solvent-based formulations to more sustainable waterborne polymers.
Omnova’s strength in North America, and Sythomer’s presence in Europe and Asia makes for a great geographic combination and clever merger.
Michelman offer a range of water-based chemical products which provide optimum resistance, protection and durability for their customers – most notably wax dispersions.
They produced the first water-based packaging coatings and today they work across different coatings markets. A smaller but forward-thinking chemical manufacturer, Michelman have carved out a niche as an environmentally friendly chemical solution provider.
Dutch multinational DSM have long been advocates of the water-based revolution. They’ve been around since the very beginning and have had a significant impact on the environmental credentials of the industry by improving the sustainability of their products.
When considering that water based coatings contain around eight times fewer VOCs than solvent born alternatives and taking into account the sheer volume of raw chemicals DSM sell and export, they can make a huge difference.
Do you think that water-based chemicals are the future? I’d love to hear about any other businesses that deserve to be on this list too, so if you have any suggestions please drop me an email at email@example.com.
Originally published in November 2018, we've updated this list of the most environmentally conscious companies in the chemicals space.