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Jorge Hurtado, PhD, PreScouter Analyst, discusses the paint industry’s contribution to microplastics pollution and ways to improve this toxic relationship
In 2022, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported a doubling of global plastic waste production compared to two decades ago, with only 9% of plastic waste effectively recycled. The IUCN estimates that 14Mt of plastic ultimately enter the world’s oceans, as a consequence of plastic leakage.
Plastic leakages occur when waste management systems are insufficient or inefficient. Thus, macro and microplastics that are not properly disposed of or recycled effectively, end up in natural systems.
The significance of assessing plastic leakage from paint
While not all paints require the addition of plastics as binders, certain types rely on an average of up to 37% acrylic resins. Paints containing acrylic resins are widely used in various applications, including architecture, marine coatings, road marking, general industry, automotive and industrial wood coatings. Acrylic resins dominated the global coatings and paints market in 2019(1), accounting for more than 42% of the sector’s revenue.
The paint industry acknowledges the harmful effects of microplastics on the environment, but it does not actively strive to reduce its emissions. This is because plastic polymers are essential for creating a durable paint layer that provides effective coverage and protection to surfaces over a long time. Consequently, completely preventing emissions is deemed unachievable.
An estimated total of microplastic leakage from paint ranges from 5.2 to 9.8Mt per year. This makes paint the primary contributor to microplastic pollution in oceans and waterways, surpassing other sources such as textiles, fibers and tyre dust.
According to a report by PreScouter (2), a global research intelligence firm, around 9.4 M microplastic particles per square kilometre are released into the air during ship painting activities alone.
"An estimated total of microplastic leakage from paint ranges from 5.2 to 9.8Mt per year. This makes paint the primary contributor to microplastic pollution in oceans and waterways, surpassing other sources such as textiles, fibers and tyre dust."
Why the paint industry should be concerned about microplastic pollution
From total plastic leakages, the paint industry contributes to approximately 1.9 Mt/yr of primary microplastics – primary meaning intentionally produced and added to products – that end up in aquatic ecosystems.
Microplastics can enter the environment, including oceans, where they accumulate and can be inadvertently consumed and accumulated by living organisms, including humans. Hence, microplastics enter the food chain through ingestion by smaller organisms and act as carriers of persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals. These pollutants can cause physical damage, disrupt physiological processes and weaken immune systems. Studies have even detected the presence of microplastics in the human bloodstream and human breast milk.
Legal aspects of paints and microplastics
Currently, there is no specific legislation addressing the issue of microplastic pollution originating from paints, with a few exceptions. However, considering the severity of microplastic pollution, it is crucial for the paint industry to carefully review laws that specifically address the contamination of aquatic ecosystems, as well as other legislations governing the composition, application, and disposal of paint products, and the use of substances in general.
1- North America:
The United States and Canada lack specific federal legislation that addresses microplastics in paints. Nevertheless, both countries have existing environmental regulations, such as the Clean Water Act (US) and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (Canada), which regulate the release of pollutants and hazardous substances into the environment. These regulatory frameworks indirectly apply to the control and management of hazardous substances, including potential aspects related to the disposal and release of microplastics.
The European Union (EU) is currently developing legislation to restrict the intentional addition of microplastics to paints.
- The Paint Directive (Directive 2004/42/EC) limits emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from decorative paints and vehicle refinishing products. Although the directive has promoted the use of water-based paints, which may contain microplastics, it indirectly affects the release of primary microplastics through the disposal of unused water-based paints.
- The European Union’s Regulation on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) plays a significant role in the paint value chain. It restricts the use of hazardous substances in paint products, and substances of concern can be either prohibited or restricted.
- In 2020, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) proposed restrictions on intentionally added microplastics in products intended for the European Economic Area (EEA) market. These proposed restrictions include derogations that directly impact paint products, such as film-forming polymer particles and microbeads/microfibers incorporated into the paint.
- The Classification, Labelling, and Packaging (CLP) regulation applies to all substances (3), including those used in paints. Although it does not directly address microplastics, it can drive the substitution of hazardous substances in paint products.
- Waste management regulations and regulations governing shipyards and marinas indirectly influence the release of microplastics from paints.
In the case of the UK, under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, the UK government has the power to regulate and control substances that may have harmful effects on the environment, potentially including microplastics.
The UK actively participates in international efforts to combat plastic pollution, including microplastics, through initiatives like the European Union’s Single-Use Plastics Directive and the G7 Plastics Pact.
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China has implemented regulations to address plastic pollution, including microplastics. The Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution by Solid Waste (4) prohibits the production, sale and use of certain types of plastic products, including microbeads in personal care products.
Japan has been focusing on voluntary measures and industry initiatives to address microplastics. The Japan Paint Manufacturers Association (JPMA) has established guidelines for reducing microplastic emissions from paints, encouraging paint manufacturers to develop environmentally friendly products.
South Korea has implemented regulations to address microplastics. The Act on Resource Circulation of Electrical and Electronic Equipment and Vehicles restricts(5) the use of microplastics in certain products, including paints.
Latest eco-friendly developments that can replace microplastics in the paint industry
In the quest for more sustainable alternatives, researchers have made significant advancements in replacing microplastics in paints. Two notable developments stand out:
- A silk-based solution: MIT and BASF researchers have developed a groundbreaking system that utilises silk to replace microplastics (6) in paints, agricultural products, and cosmetics. By manipulating proteins in non-textile-quality cocoons, they can achieve desired microcapsule sizes. This biodegradable solution can be seamlessly integrated into existing manufacturing processes, offering a straightforward “drop-in” replacement for factories.
- Plasmonic paint: Researchers at the University of Central Florida have created a remarkable plasmonic paint (7) that outperforms traditional paints. This lightweight and environmentally friendly material has the potential to replace conventional paints containing harmful components. Leveraging the principles of plasmonics, the paint achieves vibrant colours through structural colouration, inspired by the natural hues of butterflies and peacocks. By incorporating aluminium nanoparticles, it effectively manipulates light spectra, resulting in a wide range of visible colours.
While these innovations are still in their early stages and not yet available for commercial use, they hold tremendous promise as sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives to conventional colour coatings, as the PreScouter report indicates. The report also highlights strategies for other plastic-intensive industries which may be an inspiration for cross-industry collaborations.
The emergence of a more natural paint market
Although the bio-based and biodegradable paint and coating market is focused on producing products with lower or non-volatile organic compound emissions, some companies have started to produce paint made with more innovative natural ingredients. Natural pigments derived from minerals, plants, or clays are used to provide colour to the paint. Plant-based binders, such as linseed oil, tung oil, or cellulose derivatives, are commonly used instead of synthetic binders containing plastics. Some formulas may also use plant-based solvents or natural resins, and cellulose, clay, or Gum Arabic can be used as thickeners.
In sum, the paint industry must address microplastic pollution to demonstrate environmental stewardship, comply with regulations, meet consumer expectations, protect ecosystems, and contribute to a more sustainable and responsible business approach.
By Jorge Hurtado, PhD, PreScouter Analyst