Fifty shades of reuse

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:

David Cornish, AkzoNobel’s global sustainability manager for resource efficiency, speaks to Maxine Perella about reusing waste paint and how the Dulux owner is striving to make its products more sustainable

Asked to sum up the problem of waste paint, AkzoNobel’s global sustainability manager for resource efficiency David Cornish says: “There’s a lot of it – about 55 million litres a year in total. It’s about 10% of all paint that’s purchased.”

Given that much of this paint is reusable and fairly easy to extract from the general waste stream, AkzoNobel has spent the past few years looking for enterprising opportunities to recover it, in ways that deliver maximum social value. Last September the company launched its second not-for-profit paint remanufacturing facility in partnership with Community RePaint to provide low-cost, quality recycled paint to local community groups and those in social need.

Based in the North West of England, this latest facility builds on AkzoNobel’s first paint remanufacturing centre which opened last year in Cambridge. Since being operational, the Cambridge plant has produced around 10,000 litres of recycled paint, which has been delivered to more than 1,300 worthy causes and individuals.

So, what’s involved in the remanufacturing of paint? Cornish says it basically involves blending clean paint into larger amounts. “The paint is treated mildly,” he explains. “Cans are emptied, the paint is sieved and then blended. During that process a very small amount of biocide is put back into it, which all paint has when it is first manufactured, just to make sure that there is no contamination.”

In terms of quality, Cornish says that remanufactured paint can be pretty much on a par with new paint purchased off the shelves. This opens the door to further opportunities down the line – such as taking used paint back into AkzoNobel’s own manufacturing supply chain.

“We can, and are looking at ways of remanufacturing this to the same standard as some of our premium products like Dulux,” Cornish says, adding that AkzoNobel hopes to launch a remanufactured paint onto the market under its own brand name in the near future. If such a development were to be scaled up, he says it could ultimately represent a new supply chain for the company.

Challenges ahead

There are processing challenges, however, depending on the shade of paint. “The amount of paint that we could reintroduce into our products will always be the smaller amount. Technically it’s quite easy to reuse white paint, but to reblend coloured paint into a colour quality that would go into a brand like Dulux would be really quite challenging,” Cornish says. “But you can certainly do it to a good enough level for a community hall.”

There are also regulatory barriers associated with remanufacturing – a fact highlighted by AkzoNobel’s ReColour: Recycling waste paint to colour our communities report published last year. Converting waste into a new product involves a complex process of compliance with EU regulations. In particular, REACH legislation requires all substances used in paint, manufactured for sale in the EU, to be registered – but REACH was conceived at a time before recycling materials became commonplace.

To comply with REACH, full knowledge of every component of new paint produced and sold in the EU market is required, something which has until now been almost impossible to achieve for remanufactured paint made from leftover materials. AkzoNobel has been working closely with key partners in the waste industry to develop a process that can determine whether or not what is going back into the recycling process for paint is fully REACH-compliant.

“We’ve come up with a process that works,” Cornish claims. “In the first instance it will be introduced for paint that we might reuse ourselves as a new raw material. It’s been quite an involved technical project and we’ve had to collaborate with a lot of people, but we have just about got a solution to it now."

It’s worth noting that much of the waste paint AkzoNobel recovers through its Community RePaint channels doesn’t need to be remanufactured – it can simply be reused if it has been kept in good condition. Paint which is of too poor quality to be recovered (around 40% of what ends up in the waste stream, according to Cornish) typically gets incinerated. Wood stains and gloss paints account for some of the more unrecoverable products.

“We are looking at other industries to find out if we could use it as a raw material for them,” says Cornish. “It’s still work in its early days, but we do want a total solution. Our first priority is to stop over-purchase, our second is to reuse as much as we can and remanufacture what we need to, and then for the remainder to still extract some kind of value out of it.”

Principal reason

Tackling the root cause of waste paint – over-purchasing – represents a perennial issue for paint producers. Paintcare, an industry-wide consortium led by the British Coatings Federation, estimates that 30% of people in the UK have leftover paint sitting idle because they bought too much. Most paint manufacturers offer tools to customers such as online calculators to help them work out how much paint they need, but the problem persists.

“We’ve put a lot of work in over the years to get people to buy the right amount, and it’s really difficult,” says Cornish. “The professional users are fine, they waste very little paint, probably less than 2% of what they buy.

“The big problem is the DIY market, people who apply paint maybe once a year – they are not very skilled in estimating how much they need and even if they could work it out very accurately, they are always a bit reticent because they don’t want to waste time in going back to the shop in case they need more. So they can deliberately over-purchase.

Because of this, Cornish believes there will always be some waste paint to deal with and so the company’s approach to focus on recovery is a pragmatic one.

Looking ahead, AkzoNobel aims to remanufacture 100,000 litres of paint by the end of 2017 – part of this drive will involve opening up more channels for reuse.

“What we are trying to do with the remanufacturing is to get more paint used on bigger buildings for bigger projects. Community groups and charity groups will help drive that volume,” Cornish says, adding that the company is still working out the optimum business model for remanufacturing. “Do we go for three or four really big facilities that can turn out a high volume of paint and are very efficient and low cost, or is it better to have lots of smaller ones locally? We don’t know the answers to that yet.”

Enthusiasm for change

Reflecting on some of the key learnings that have come out of the process so far, Cornish says that it’s important to reframe the issue of waste paint as an opportunity, rather than a problem. He has also been impressed with the level of appetite for teamwork – particularly within the waste sector.

“It’s been really interesting collaborating with some of the waste management companies, understanding their processes and limitations. I have found them to be quite entrepreneurial and innovative in looking for new ways of doing things.”

David Cornish CV

David Cornish's role as AkzoNobel's global sustainability manager for source efficiency is to evolve strategy and process for recovering, reusing and eliminating waste, both product and packaging from the company's decorative products global business and operations. His more recent roles include director of franchising for AkzoNobel and head of UK trade customer marketing for ICI Paints - the brand acquired by AkzoNobel in 2008.

Cornish has spent over 30 years as a sales and marketing professional for the Dulux brand, often working alongside the construction industry.

He is passionate about innovation and working with business start-ups; interests that have seen him co-ordinate the successes of ReColour over the last year, alongside Community RePain and Newlife Paints. Cornish also holds a postgraduate certificate in Sustainable Business from the University of Cambridge.

Five things I can't live without...

My wife Susan: We have been married 33 years, she keeps me grounded and challenged at the right level.

Reading matter: Whether it’s a book or newspaper, I do like to have something in my hands that I can read. I get The Guardian every day and I love reading that.

Holidays: I like to escape. This weekend I’m off hiking in the Lake District. I also need the sunshine, I get very depressed if it’s cloudy for too long so I like to go for a week away in the Mediterranean as well.

A nearby pub: It’s important that there’s a pub within walking distance of the house. Preferably a 20-minute walk away, across a field or through the woods, so you feel like you’ve really earned your beer when you arrive.

A cup of tea: When I get out of bed, and when I come home from work: two key rituals that make me function. It has to be PG Tips. If my wife tries to introduce other brands, they get kicked out straightaway.

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