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Working with Sustainable Products: The Good and the Bad

Posted 03/06/2017 by Dr. Stephen Willging , Global Technology Advisor

With over three decades of experience in the use of sustainable materials in the adhesive industry, I've taken some time to reflect on my involvement with this type of work and uncover some of the pain points – and solutions – of working with sustainable products.

Currently, sustainable products come at a cost. Despite the fact that they are made from naturally-derived materials and are more environmentally-friendly, most of these materials are more expensive and have different performance properties than their traditional petrochemical counterparts. Furthermore, because the marketplace, which demands sustainable products, has not yet fully accepted the higher costs and performance differences associated with them, it is difficult to strike a balance between consumer demands and the high cost.

The Problem

Most greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide (CO2), are emitted into the air as a result of electricity generation, industrial usages, transportation fuels, and building heating and cooling. Manufacturing of adhesives contributes to a relatively small fraction of emissions. So, even if all adhesives were “green,” the environmental impact would be small.  
 
Oftentimes, the end users are not aware that adhesives are even present in the products that consumers use on a daily basis. This makes the selling of the use of “green” adhesives difficult, beckoning the question, what can the adhesive industry deliver that is green?
 

The Green Solution

Many organizations do not produce products that are made from naturally-derived materials because  of cost, availability and performance differences, so it is important to consider these qualities as we look for more environmentally-friendly solutions that do not sacrifice on quality. At H. B. Fuller, we are committed to offering the best of both words: products that enable our customers to meet their sustainability goals and at the right price. 
 
In addition to the cost issue mentioned above, availability of naturally-derived raw materials is an issue. Adhesives are typically complex mixtures of multiple components, and some components do not have  a naturally-derived alternative. Currently, adhesives that are partially derived from naturally-sourced materials are being supplied to the market where they bring value.
 
Many of H.B. Fuller’s adhesives enable our customers to utilize more energy-efficient methods within their processes. For starters, the right adhesive can enable customers to use more sustainable substrates or lower their energy usage. The right adhesive or sealant can facilitate the usage of alternative electricity sources and also enable improvement in the transportation fleet efficiency. All of this has a large impact on the big picture. 
 
Products that are environmentally-friendly are important to our adhesive customers, thus encouraging us at H.B. Fuller to make them better aware. In this way, it helps generate interest, demand, and a willingness to find value for both naturally-derived adhesives and enabling adhesives. 
 
Here are some examples of where we’ve helped our customers and how our adhesives are environmentally-friendly. 
  • Automotive – adhesives allow the use of plastics, aluminum and thin gauge steels that cannot be joined by traditional welding in the lightweighting of vehicles for energy efficiency improvements.
  • Wind/Solar – by utilizing adhesives and sealants, wind and solar energy products are better sealed and held together, thus extending product life and preventing end users from having to replace the silicon or blades as frequently.
  • Flooring – adhesives can help with vinyl flooring recycling, and wood composites help extend the availability of wood for flooring.
  • Windows – our sealants help hold insulated glass windows together. 
  • Construction – our caulks and sealants are used to seal buildings and help minimize required energy to heat and cool them, and our ceiling tapes are used for building construction and prevent air from leaking out of seams in the insulation.
  • Packaging – by using flexible packaging materials, the use of substrates is reduced.  

Moving Forward 

Customers want reduced material consumption, energy consumption, pollution, CO2, and waste. They also want cost savings, consistency in availability, and high performance. Based on both environmental and economic factors, sustainable materials will continue to compete with petrochemicals for the foreseeable future. 
 
The key is to look to “enabling” adhesives (regardless of chemistry) to help provide the benefit to customers’ sustainability goals, including monitoring supply chain dynamics, proactively evaluating bio sourced materials, and building flexibility into product lines (utilizing both traditional and sustainable technologies).
 
H.B. Fuller is at the forefront of sustainable chemistry technology. Adhesives that enable sustainability can provide benefits to customers in the short-term while we work with industry experts to develop a long-term strategy. Learn more about H.B. Fuller’s sustainability commitment, then contact us today!

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