Until now, recycling paint has been a laborious, costly process, leading to huge amount of unused paint going to waste and ending up in landfills. Thanks to a collaboration between Dulux-owner AkzoNobel, design and innovation company Seymourpowell, and Newlife Paints, recycling paint may finally be able to become ‘mainstream.’
Seymourpowell says that over 50 million litres of decorative paint goes unused each year in the United Kingdom (U.K.) alone; about 15 percent of the 337 million litres sold. The amount is a lot higher in the United States (U.S.); in 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that 10 percent of all paint purchased in the U.S. goes unused, equivalent to over 242 million litres (around 64 million gallons).
Industrial chemist Keith Harrison perfected a technique for re-engineering unused paint back into a good quality, recycled paint product, based on two years of research. In 2008, he founded Newlife Paints, which is now one of two companies in the U.K. that converts waste emulsion paint back into full quality, commercial grade paint (the other being Castle RePaint). Upon teaming up with AkzoNobel, they discovered many technical and commercial challenges remained barriers to scaling up the recycling process. Seymourpowell was brought into the mix to find a technology that could help.
“One of the major technical problems with recycling paint is that it’s very difficult to decant from tins. The process is labour-intensive and expensive because it all has to be done by hand,” explained Chris Sherwin, Sustainability Consultant at Seymourpowell. “Our first challenge was to discover the very best way of harvesting all of the unused paint in the most cost-effective way. We started by setting up a paint recycling station in our workshop.”
Seymourpowell’s team began experimenting with different technologies and processes for extracting the unused paint form tins – testing numerous solutions from high-pressure air jets to vibrating, crushing and squeezing the cans, even going so far as to try a giant ‘worm screw’ to crush and drain tins at the same time. None of these methods “really worked,” until they eventually discovered a powerful industrial vacuum cleaner that could be adapted to suck paint out of cans quickly and efficiently.
The team made the suction technology more suitable for paint recycling and created a large prototype to extract unused paint on an industrial scale. The concept was trialed with waste management company Veolia, which has been actively collaborating on circular economy initiatives and plans to recycle paint commercially. The trial was a “resounding success,” proving that Seymourpowell’s concept allows paint to be recycled four times faster and at one-seventh of the cost of previous methods. The method also leaves the cans clean enough to be recycled right away, and is easy to use.
“Redesigning the way paint gets recycled is fraught with challenges, but Seymourpowell managed to combine creativity with technical ingenuity to create a really effective new solution. This is certainly helping turn our circular economy strategy into a reality,” said AkzoNobel’s Resource Efficiency Manager David Cornish.
“We discovered significant interest from customers and this is being taken forward by AkzoNobel. We’re also planning to develop a smaller paint suction prototype for smaller paint recycling operations too,” Sherwin added. “This project has been really rewarding to work on because we’re creating a real, live example of a circular economy and because this is such a fledgling process.”