How the EU is doing away with high-gloss paints, and later on we have the newest products, who makes what and a look at the bottom line when the paint’s dry

A new European Union law is set to strike at the heart of British government – well, at least knock loudly on its front door. The volatile organic compound (VOC) paints and varnishes directive will prevent decorators from using high-gloss paint, which means, among other things, that the world-famous door to 10 Downing Street will look less shiny in future.

High-gloss paint is to be outlawed because the EU is imposing limits on organic solvents. These solvents give gloss paint its shine, but when drying give off VOCs, which in still, sunny conditions react with nitrogen oxide to produce smog (see “Organic solvents”).

The EU directive controlling VOC emissions from paints, varnishes and vehicle-finishing products has to be implemented by the British government in two stages on 1 January 2007 and 1 January 2010. Hugh Williams, technical manager at the British Coatings Federation, says that it’s the second deadline manufacturers and specifiers should worry about (see table).

“To reduce VOCs in paint from 400 to 300 grams/litre is quite a big technological challenge. Solvent-borne paint will virtually disappear in 2010,” he predicts. Williams says that it is important for specifiers to understand the changes. “The specifier should be aware that if they want an 80 to 90% high-gloss finish in 2010, that type of coating may not be available.”

As well as providing a mirror-like surface, solvent-based paint has other qualities that manufacturers could find hard to replicate in water-borne paint. The colour is less likely to fade and it has a higher opacity, which means it requires fewer coats to obliterate the colour underneath. Water-borne paint can also be difficult to apply in the cold. It freezes at a higher temperature than solvent-borne paint, and so is more likely to be damaged if applied during cold weather. Decorators must be careful not to apply it at less than 5°C and it is vital not to store it outside in case it freezes and becomes unusable.

At the other end of the scale, in humid conditions there is a danger that the water in water-borne paint will not evaporate and will become trapped in the paint. The decorator also has to be more careful preparing and cleaning surfaces before application as it less forgiving towards dirt and dust than solvent-borne paint.

John Carlyle, technical manager in charge of specification at coatings manufacturer Akzo Nobel, says other solutions may be possible. “The chemists in the paint industry have four years to come up with a water-based alternative to solvent-borne paint,” he says. “I anticipate modification rather than new technology.”

Carlyle says that chemists will need to find ways of reducing the amount of solvent required but maintain paint’s viscosity. This type of resin technology is not new but it does have cost implications.

Tony Newbold, deputy chief executive at the BCF, believes that changing the formulation of the paint may have knock-on effects. “If you change the polymer technology it could affect something else such as durability, flow characteristics or glossiness. In some cases, new approaches to applications will be required.”

David Powis, chief executive of the Painting and Decorating Association, is sanguine about the changes. “We have already got used to water-borne paint,” he says. “In terms of application it’s not that different, but in terms of cleaning up afterwards it’s much easier with water-borne paint as you don’t need white spirit or turpentine.”

Newbold believes it is important that decorators and specifiers are aware of how paint will change. He says that specifiers understand that there might be an additional cost in achieving the performance required and says that decorators must be trained in good time to understand new application methods.

The directive is being implemented in the UK through the VOCs in Paints, Varnishes and Vehicle Refinishing Regulations 2005, which is currently in consultation and will be in place by 30 October 2005. The legislation will largely affect trim – such as door frames, skirting and mouldings – which has traditionally been painted in solvent-borne glossy paint in the UK. Other countries will be affected to differing degrees. In Mediterranean and Scandinavian countries trim is rarely painted in gloss; the French, on the other hand, have a penchant for shiny walls and may have to rethink their notions of interior design.

Apart from a reduction in incidences of ruined trousers, a move away from solvent-borne paint will save European health services up to £109m by cutting smog. On the down side, the industry will have to pay for its implementation. At the last count, the UK government estimated that it would cost £3.9m to implement phase one and £76.7m for phase two.

Organic solvents

As their name suggests, solvent-borne paints contain a much higher level of organic solvents than water-borne paints. Solvents are responsible for the odour noticeable in freshly painted buildings. When paint dries, these solvents evaporate and release volatile organic compounds, otherwise known as VOCs.

The European Union is introducing limits on VOCs because in sunny, still conditions they combine with nitrogen oxides to form ground-level ozone. This contributes towards summertime smog, which can be harmful to vegetation, building materials and people’s health. The UK is estimated to emit 1514 kilotonnes of VOCs a year, and paints, varnishes and vehicle-refinishing products make up 4.2% of the total.

Organic solvents have several functions that help improve the performance of paint – they adjust viscosity to ensure a smooth flow rate and mirror finish, speed drying and enhance durability.

Fifty years ago nearly all paint was solvent-borne but advances in paint technology have led to water-borne paints being used in many applications.

The EU’s limitation on VOCs will accelerate the move towards water-borne paints – the challenge for manufacturers’ chemical laboratories is to find alternatives for organic solvents that do not compromise the performance of the paint.

Paints, sealants and finishes