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Clariant partners with a key United Nations Environment Programme project to accelerate the phase-out of lead in paint

Clariant Image Ban Lead Paint Header 2020 EN

The manufacture and sale of lead paint is still permitted in over 60% of countries, presenting a continuing and future source of lead exposure for children and all human beings.

From October 26th-30th, 2020 the eighth International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week took place. It is an initiative of the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, and jointly led by the UN Environment Programme and WHO. This week highlighted the actions needed to accelerate progress towards the global phase-out of lead paint through regulatory and legal measures.

As one of the first companies to completely end the production, and supply, of lead-based pigments in the mid-1980’s (Hoechst AG – now Clariant), Clariant supports the United Nations’ campaign to eliminate lead paint and, through regulatory and legal measures, accelerate progress towards its global phase-out.

To work towards this goal, Clariant is a supporter of the UN’s Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) initiative, a global policy framework which aims to protect human health and the environment from the unsound management of chemicals and waste.

In an interview, John Dunne, Head of Business Unit Pigments at Clariant, gives an overview of Clariant’s work towards eliminating lead in paint.

John Dunne: Sustainability is a strategic pillar of Clariant’s Strategy and, as global supplier of organic pigments, for many years we have been working on colorants that can replace toxic pigments. We always ensure that our products meet – and when possible go beyond – international environmental, health and safety standards, as well as proactively take steps to support low-carbon and circular solutions. While there is no simple 1:1 replacement, we have focused on developing innovative pigments and investigating clever paint formulation and application strategies to minimize the differences in a coating’s appearance and performance.

In the SAICM initiative, there is a focus on working with small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) to transition to a lead paint free market. Why are they an important target?

Some global paint suppliers, including us – our predecessor Hoechst AG and now Clariant – started the phase-out of lead-based pigments in the 1980s and 90’s. Consequently, in addition to their global reach and economies of scale, they have a head-start in established and proven solution and the marketing of these. Lead-banning legislation, without first helping SMEs to compete against this may put many of them immediately out of business, reducing public and industry acceptance of such legislation. In addition, let’s not forget that SMEs have a reasonably large market share in several countries.

John, why is it important to support paint reformulation in low- and middle-income countries?

To answer this question, we need to review the properties of lead-based pigments and why they became so popular. They are cheap, bright in color, and easy to incorporate into a paint. On the other hand, beyond their poor sustainability credentials, lead-based pigments typically have poor resistance to acids and alkali and can only cover the colors from greenish yellow to red. Our alternatives are both easy-to-disperse powder pigments and pre-dispersed, liquid color concentrates, which can be simply stirred into a clear varnish. The existing equipment in local paint companies is therefore enough to allow lead replacement, meaning that clever reformulation can save a lot of investment in new hardware. This enables local paint companies to expand the color gamut of their paint significantly without increasing costs. Enhanced sustainability can also lead to cost savings and performance improvements.

How has this mutually beneficial partnership between Clariant and SMEs worked?

We are supporting SMEs with sales and technical support through specially assigned local and regional distributors. The staff of these distributors are regularly trained by Clariant´s regional technical laboratories, including hands-on experience in paint technology. In addition, projects of a certain scale are directly supported in collaboration with the distributors. This is the reason why we believe that the SAICM Global Environment Facility project and it’s Lead in Paint component is a good initiative that sustainable and forward-looking companies should support.

What are some of the most significant barriers that paint manufacturers are struggling with and what role is Clariant looking to play to help overcome these?

There is a general perception in middle-income countries that lead-free paint is very expensive and doesn’t perform well, yet the price of organic pigments has come down significantly in the last decade. Hiding power is another key contributor to the cost of a coating. If formulated with organic pigments only, a yellow coating would require 200-250 µm of dry film thickness. However, if this paint is applied on a white primer, 20 µm are enough! Many paint applications require a primer anyway, for corrosion protection, adhesion promotion or surface smoothing, but typically such primers are dark grey or red. Why not re-formulate the primer color to synergize with the topcoat? These are the kinds of innovations we are promoting.

What are some of the lessons that you would like to share from your role facilitating the transition of SME work?

A key lesson for me is that without legislation to phase out lead in paint, the shift to sustainable solutions is occurring at a very low pace, regardless of our efforts. An unregulated market favors the avoiders and exploiters, but not the innovators and caretakers. As long as damage to people’s health and the environment are not part of the equation, legislation must set the course of the market with SMEs supported in the transition ahead.

In your opinion, what else needs to be done in the near term to scale up the current work that is being done through the SAICM project? Could the private sector play a bigger role?

In the 1970s, German Post changed its fleet color to a noticeably duller yellow shade in order to get rid of lead-based pigments while maintaining the hiding power of the paint. Today, such a step wouldn’t be necessary, but it shows that sometimes it is better to take a small step back in order to prepare for a big leap. This is an issue of mindset, and this can be addressed by proper promotional campaigns and the involvement of all relevant stakeholders (authorities, industry, NGOs). With regards to regulatory action, there is a need to keep “hammering the message” and actively engaging with the relevant governments to push for the phase out of lead in paint, demonstrating both the sustainability benefits and the existence of available alternatives in the market. Clariant is convinced that active engagement in public policy dialogue is key. When it comes to supporting SMEs, national paint innovation awards could help to start a domestic race for lead replacement, future-proofing local markets and facilitating the emergence of “national sustainability heroes”!