How voluntary action is motivating an entire sector

Symbolbild Farbe Umweltetikette
© Stiftung Farbe

The paint ecolabel shows how much consideration is given to environmental, health and quality factors in the manufacture of certain types of paints and varnishes. This makes it easier for consumers to compare products and has motivated the manufacturers to make voluntary improvements to their products.

By Yvonne von Hunnius, 12.05.2016

The paint ecolabel is a Swiss solution and one that distinguishes the fundamental understanding of doing business in Switzerland from that in other countries: “Nobody is forced to use the ecolabel. Manufacturers only participate in the system if they can identify an advantage for both their business and the environment,” says Matthias Baumberger. He is President of the Swiss Paint Foundation (Schweizer Stiftung Farbe), which is overseen by the Association of the Swiss Paint and Varnish Industry (Verband der Schweizerischen Lack- und Farbenindustrie, VSLF) and issues the paint ecolabel. The principle is unique and simple: 27 Swiss manufacturers of paints and varnishes have currently undertaken a voluntary commitment to categorise their products based on an A to G traffic-light system and label them accordingly. Regulations will soon exist for three specific product types – the most established of these is the “I” ecolabel which applies to interior wall paint. Category A products are very environmentally friendly. They do not contain toxic solvents, are manufactured mainly from renewable raw materials and are also free from aromatic hydrocarbons, that is aromatics like toluene and xylene. The system also takes into account whether the products are fully compliant with all of the relevant technical requirements. This new comparability has motivated the manufacturers to improve the environmental friendliness of their products.

Symbolbild Farbeimer mit Umweltetikette
In April 2016, 365 paints and varnishes had been awarded the paint ecolabel in Switzerland.
© Stiftung Farbe

A yardstick for practical use

Once a company has committed to using the label, the traffic-light system must be applied to the entire range of products offered for a particular type of application within two years. Baumberger reports: “Following the launch of the system in 2012, by early 2014 most products, i.e. 40 percent, were classified in the medium C category. There were hardly any products in the first division A category. However, the manufactures have since worked hard on changing their formulations. In February 2016, at 43 percent, the lion’s chare of the products were classified in category B and the number of products in category A had tripled.” Category A is not something that can be achieved in the blink of an eye. It requires a conscious decision to aim for the top ecological classification.

The company Dold AG from Wallisellen is a paint and varnish manufacturer which has made the leap into the premium category with its products. Dold developed Docodol, for example, the world’s first water-soluble and hence solvent-free paint, which complies with the very strict “II” ecolabel requirements and is applicable to “interior paints, wood and floor coatings”. According to Dold’s managing director Michael Steinlin, the categorisation can offer a clear competitive edge among customers with an awareness of environmental issues, for example public sector clients. However, private customers are also developing a greater awareness of the environmental friendliness of paints.

Steinlin is fully convinced by the principle: “The ‘label jungle’ is confusing for users and the only thing that makes sense is a full declaration. Every manufacturer has its showcase products but when it comes to their practical use, consumers must have a yardstick for all applications.” This means that consumers clearly understand when they will be able to find an environmentally friendly alternative and when they will have to make certain sacrifices at the expense of the environment. It always depends on the substrate and ambient conditions –professional painters have often had to resort to category F or G products in the case of substrates with poor absorbency, very low temperature environments and in the aftermath of fires. Solvents still have a role to play in such circumstances.

Dold Innenraumbeispiel
Example of an interior decorated using the ecolabel paint.
© Dold AG

Creating a scientific basis

In addition to production using renewable raw materials, the serviceability of products is a particular challenge for the manufacturers and poses important questions for the ecolabel. What should be done if a paint is environmentally friendly but can cause corrosion wounds – or if a paint requires more frequent re-application than more harmful paints? Work was carried out using complex lifecycle calculations to ensure that the categorisation is also consistent with a product’s ecological footprint.

The development of the criteria was and remains tricky. Matthias Baumberger, President of the Swiss Paint Foundation and Director of the VSLF, is aware of the factors to which the participants attach particular importance. “The system must be clear to everyone and have a solid scientific basis,” he says. It took two years to fine-tune the first set of regulations. University experts from both Switzerland and abroad, manufacturers, representatives of product users, the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) and property owners were involved in the process. Compliance with the criteria is verified regularly with the help of independent product tests and also tailored to new developments.

A third set of regulations for ‘interior renders’ will be published soon. This will be the last set for interior applications before the demanding area of exterior applications is tackled. In addition to the environmental impacts, factors like fading and erosion will also have to be taken into account here.

Alpina Farben im Baumarkt
The Alpina paint range in a DIY store – the paint ecolabel can now be found here too.

The paint ecolabel reaches the DIY stores

The aim is to make everything as clear as possible for the user so the categories A to G correspond to a green to red traffic light system. The system provides a rapid overview for designers, architects and tradesmen, but also amateurs. The ecolabel was initially aimed at the professionals, however this changed when Alpina, a major brand in the DIY sector, joined the system. Switzerland’s Alpina products which are manufactured by the DAW concern, now carry the label too. Integrity also emerges as a crucial factor in this context: “For the consumer, this makes purchasing decisions easier without being influenced by advertising,” says Schalom Singer, Sales Director at Alpina Schweiz.

If this dynamic continues, the ecolabel could also conquer the DIY sector soon. Following the launch of the “I” ecolabel in January 2012, 142 wall paints were registered in that category by the end of that year. This number had increased to 368 by April 2016, which means that 95 percent of interior wall paints in Switzerland now carry the ecolabel.

Why can paint be harmful?

Paints and varnishes can have harmful effects on health and the environment during raw material extraction, production, use and waste disposal. They are sometimes also harmful when people are exposed to them over long periods in their living space. Paints and varnishes consist mainly of solvents, binding agents, pigments and additives. Due to their good functional capacities and for other reasons, oil-based products are very common among solvents and binding agents. However, their impacts on health and the environment are highly problematic. Natural organic solvents can also trigger allergies, and although natural binding agents like lime are safe from an ecological point of view, they can have corrosive effects on the skin.

VOC tax for better air

Volatile organic compounds (VOC) based on natural gas and oil are used as solvents in paints and varnishes – they help the components to mix well and boost drying performance. Their presence can be detected in their pungent vapours. However, they are harmful to health – they can be carcinogenic – and the environment (e.g. formation of ozone). To reduce the use of VOCs, the federal authorities introduced a VOC levy in 2000. Manufacturers must pay a certain fee for products containing VOCs. The proceeds are returned to the population through a reduction in the cost of health insurance. The levy is intended to motivate consumers and manufacturers to switch to alternative products – for example water-based products. The European Union has prescribed a maximum content of VOCs for products in the Paints Directive.

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Last modification 13.05.2016

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