Cleaning-up shipping containers

China migrates to waterborne coatings

Making a splash in waterborne coatings

If residents of China have noticed a little less smog in the air recently…they could have the Chinese container industry to thank. Gigantic containers are the mainstay of the global transportation industry - and today, 93% of them are manufactured in China.

Until recently, the heavy-duty coatings needed to protect these containers had an eye-watering 50% solvent content including many Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These toxins cause everything from ‘sick building syndrome’ (which literally makes your eyes water), to smog. But now the industry is fighting back thanks to the Waterborne China Platform.

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The Waterborne China Platform

The Waterborne China Platform is a non-profit collective formed by DSM and other coating players in China nearly a decade ago with the aim of helping the container industry migrate to waterborne coatings - which contain up to eight times fewer VOCs than solvent-borne equivalents.

As a leading supplier of waterborne resin technology - the ‘backbone’ of all paints and coatings - DSM has chaired the platform since its inception, but it wasn’t until 2013 that things really took off, when the Chinese government released its ‘Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan’.

For the next three-to-four years, the Platform team worked tirelessly across the industry, organizing meetings, seminars and workshops aimed at educating everyone in the value chain on the benefits of moving to a waterborne coating technology - not least the Container Owner Association (COA). And after much debate and discussion (and occasionally, disagreement) the entire industry eventually agreed to migrate. 

Cleaner air for all

At DSM we’ve aligned our entire commercial strategy specifically with five of the UN Sustainable Development Goals agreed in 2015. In the case of our waterborne coatings that means:

After years of painstaking work, this is now being delivered by the Waterborne Coatings Platform - in the form of a 140 kiloton reduction in VOC emissions. In fact, today some 90% of all industrial containers are based on waterborne coatings that protect and perform at least as well as solvent-borne equivalents.

Science & Innovation

Although solvent-borne technology was the original industry standard for paints, inks and various other coatings, waterborne technology has existed for decades. So why has it proved so difficult for the commercial world to make the switch? The answer lies in performance. From a functionality standpoint, solvents dissolve and disperse various components inside a paint or ink before evaporating into the air (hence the VOCs) and leaving the coating to dry on the surface.

Which is why our team of scientists at DSM in China spend their days benchmarking waterborne resins against solvent-borne equivalents. Specifically, they use powerful macromolecular microscopes and other technology to study how water can be used to replicate the properties of solvents - and thus ensure a more sustainable product with no compromise on performance. So far, so good.

The future

Despite the progress achieved in China, paint remains the number one cause of VOCs in the world. The challenge now? Extending the successful cross-industry collaboration of the Waterborne China Platform into new areas. For example, the largest source of VOC emissions in China is from solvents used in wooden furniture manufacturing, which accounts for 10% of the total. By switching to waterborne technologies it’s estimated the industry could save one million tons of CO2 - the equivalent to growing 550,000 football fields of trees in one year.

The air we all breathe - whether indoors or outdoors - is the most fundamental aspect of life on our planet. Through this new generation of waterborne coating technology we’re keeping it clean for generations now and to come.

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