Navigating the Transition: AkzoNobel's Path to Sustainable Coatings

Posted By: Jesse Martens In the News,

In recent years, the chemical compound bisphenol A (BPA) has garnered significant attention due to its widespread use in the production of plastics and resins, coupled with growing concerns about its potential health risks. Since the 1950s, BPA has been a cornerstone in the manufacturing of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, finding its way into everyday items such as food and beverage containers, dental sealants, and even the lining of metal products like food cans.

However, mounting evidence from scientific studies has raised societal concerns regarding BPA's safety profile. Research indicates that BPA can leach into food and beverages from containers, leading to human exposure. Particularly worrisome is the impact on vulnerable populations such as fetuses, infants, and children, with potential adverse effects on brain development, prostate gland health, and behavioral patterns. Moreover, emerging studies suggest plausible links between BPA exposure and conditions like elevated blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Faced with these concerns, numerous organizations and regulatory bodies are actively seeking alternatives to BPA to safeguard both human health and the environment.

In the ongoing efforts to transition away from bisphenols, companies like AkzoNobel are actively engaged in seeking alternative solutions. Playing a significant role in this endeavor is Jesse Martens, Head of Global Public Affairs at AkzoNobel, a seasoned professional with extensive experience in navigating sustainability, public affairs, and international markets.

AkzoNobel, a Change Chemistry member, maintains a commitment to sustainability within the chemical coatings industry. Recognized for its dedication to pioneering solutions, AkzoNobel supplies sustainable and innovative paints and coatings globally.

In line with its sustainability ethos, AkzoNobel acknowledges the importance of seeking alternatives to bisphenols, given the potential risks they pose to human health and the environment.

Change Chemistry caught up with Jesse Martens to discuss how AkzoNobel is engaging with policymakers and innovating toward a sustainable transition away from BPA and other hazardous chemicals.

Change Chemistry: Tell us a little bit about AkzoNobel and why your company is concerned about BPA.

Jesse Martens: AkzoNobel is a global paints and coatings company. We create all sorts of paints and coatings, including the decorative paints that you can buy yourself. We also create coatings like those on furniture, electronics, and larger items such as automobiles, aerospace, and energy infrastructure. Basically, our products are everywhere.

We've always had a strong focus on both innovation and sustainability. We focus on how we can make our own operations more sustainable, using less energy, for example, in the production of paints and coatings. But what is more interesting is thinking about how we can help others become more sustainable with our paints and coatings.

BPA has been used in coatings for decades. One big example is the linings inside food and drink cans. These coatings prevent the metal of the can from coming in direct contact with the food or drink. This prevents corrosion of the can. For over 60 years, our industry has been using BPA-based and epoxy coating technology to protect the food supply. But, because BPA has been shown to be a societal concern more recently, we're working on finding new technologies that still protect food cans without using BPA. While we are not going to weigh in on the concerns for BPA, we do feel that the industry has alternative solutions that make the continued use of BPA-based epoxy resins unnecessary.

Change Chemistry: As you’re working toward alternatives to BPA, what are some of the considerations you have to take into account?

Jesse Martens: Yes, I think that's a very interesting question because sometimes we do things simply because that's how they've always been done. BPA is a prime example of this, as it has been the established technology for over 60 years and has proven to be highly effective. The long-term consistent use of BPA has been crucial for achieving high-speed, highly efficient manufacturing, coating the filling lines of cans, and allowing for the production of hundreds+ of cans per minute. It serves as a reliable barrier in the coating.

So, the challenge now is to find alternative technologies that can match BPA's performance while maintaining the efficiency of the application lines. What's particularly intriguing about this process is ensuring that the senses, like taste and smell, of products aren't compromised by the coating. This emphasis on maintaining product quality can sometimes lead to a preference for traditional methods. However, as a coatings company, our role is to explore alternatives that offer the same functionality as BPA without the associated concerns. It's about discovering and implementing new technologies that meet both performance and safety standards.

Efficiency to produce the required cans and not disrupting the food supply is a huge point in this conversation. There are several different actors involved in this value chain, including the brand owner, can makers, and those who apply the coating. This is where regulation plays a crucial role in setting standards for what is allowed and what is not. Regulation certainly drives change. 

One very important factor in finding a replacement is avoiding regrettable substitutions. We must ensure that smart chemists don't simply jump from one hazardous substance to another. If we jump from BPA to a different technology that hasn’t undergone the same amount of research, we might end up back in the same place where we started. This is a crucial question for coating technologies. We need to find solutions that are not only free of BPA but the broader class of bisphenols. There are plenty of chemical structures to explore, but the goal is to move the coatings landscape toward new and better technologies altogether.

Change Chemistry: What sort of progress has been made in finding effective substitutions for these substances?

Jesse Martens: AkzoNobel is working on a transition that incorporates responsible material substitutions and limits disruption to our value chain. The technologies we use for non-bisphenol can coatings are based on cross-linked acrylic resins or based on dispersion of polyolefins that have broadly accepted safety profiles.

All of the large providers have been aware of regulatory and societal trends, so they have all developed solutions. This is a competitive area, so collaboration between providers is somewhat challenging.

Change Chemistry: Are there existing regulations in the EU and the US for BPAs?

Jesse Martens: In the US, certain states have communication obligations. If a product contains BPA, it must be labeled accordingly. Some have, or are developing, bans on BPA. In Europe, regulations have been in development for the past two years. Just recently, a rough draft of regulation was introduced, aiming to restrict BPA in food contact materials, along with other bisphenols. The proposed regulation will undergo discussion this year, with finalization expected around 2026.

An interesting aspect in Europe is that France has already regulated BPA for over a decade, demonstrating that it's possible to find solutions while maintaining product availability and safety. All major coating companies supply compliant products for the French market. These coatings do not contain BPA. This showcases a unique aspect of European regulation, where member states can take individual actions rather than waiting for harmonization at the EU level.

Change Chemistry: Do you have direct communication with policymakers? How are you engaging with these proposed regulations?

Jesse Martens: Yes, we initiated engagement with policymakers two years ago by publishing our vision on the metal food packaging market. This led to responses from stakeholders, including customers and policymakers. We've been actively involved in discussions with NGOs, members of the European Parliament, the European Commission, and other relevant bodies. Our goal is to provide expertise and ensure that regulations are informed by practical insights from the industry.

Change Chemistry: Can you tell us about your relationship with Change Chemistry?

Jesse Martens: I've been following Change Chemistry for several years now. Change Chemistry is focused on establishing systems that support the growth of innovative companies. It's about learning from discussions and bringing progressive companies together. It's not about blindly replicating what others are doing but rather gaining insights. It's essential to discuss what's feasible. Change Chemistry plays a vital role in regulations. Regulations can be developed, but if the market can't implement them, change won't occur. Conversely, it's crucial for industries to highlight alternatives, ensuring a smooth transition without disruption. Change Chemistry shines a spotlight on these alternatives, crucial for driving market shifts and making transitions a reality.

Change Chemistry: Can you offer any advice for other companies working in transitional areas like this?

Jesse Martens: If I were to offer advice, it would be to avoid solely focusing on compliance with existing regulations. Regulation landscapes are rapidly evolving, particularly in Europe. By broadening your perspective to consider broader materials of concern, you become more adaptable. Moving beyond compliance ensures resilience against changing regulations. For instance, transitioning away from bisphenols not only addresses current restrictions but also prepares for potential future regulations. It's a different approach to innovation—one that prioritizes anticipating regulatory and societal shifts.

To all those concerned about the pervasive presence of bisphenols in our daily lives and eager to contribute to a safer, healthier future, we invite you to join us in the journey toward changing chemistry. AkzoNobel, as a Change Chemistry member, is committed to leading the charge in transitioning away from materials of concern and toward sustainable alternatives. Your engagement and support are crucial in driving similar transitions forward. Together, we can make a significant impact on critical issues and pave the way for a more sustainable world. Join us today and be part of the solution.