Nov 01, 2018

All Plascon products marked with an EcoKindTM logo are not only eco-friendly but also play a role in increasing a building’s green rating. Image Credit: Plascon.

Heightened concern for the environment – by consumers and legislators - is a key motivator for manufacturers to refine their products to minimise their harmful effect on the planet. The global coatings industry is no exception to this, resulting in a plethora of environmentally conscious paints, varnishes and other coatings that are now available.


Reda Fleet, Head of Research and Technical service for coating specialists Kansai Plascon, is passionate about minimising the impact of coatings on the environment. ‘‘Given the product choices facing green-friendly coatings customers,’ he says, ‘’it is essential to differentiate the coatings brand by highlighting its environmentally-considerate credentials.”

One of these key differentiators is the volatile organic content (VOC) of the coating. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines VOCs as “organic chemical compounds whose composition makes it possible for them to evaporate under normal indoor atmospheric conditions of temperature and pressure”, while the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) outlines a VOC as an organic compound with a boiling point less than 250°C. Many other definitions exist globally including organic compounds with boiling points between 69°C and 287°C (Europe), between 50°C and 250°C (Canada), and between 23°C and 260°C (Japan). 

If ‘volatile’ means the compound evaporates easily, and “organic” means the compound comprises molecules with carbon-based bonds, what impact does a high VOC rating have on humans?

Says Fleet, ‘’This means that paints with a high VOC content may release compounds in high dosages over time, either increasing potential exposure to harmful compounds (e.g. formaldehyde or benzene) or releasing it to the atmosphere and creating harmful nitrous oxides or ozone.”

He continues, ‘‘Once evaporated, the VOC can be inhaled when inside the building, with short-term exposure potentially causing symptoms such as headaches and dizziness. The long-term effects are less certain, but some VOCs are suspected carcinogens. Coatings can continue to emit VOCs long after they have dried.’’

Green Star South Africa, an audit arm of the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA), recognises and rates building projects for which the materials are earth-friendly, and which comply with environmental legislation and guidelines.

Fleet believes that, as well as helping the planet, a further benefit in the reduction of VOC levels in paint enables the coatings manufacturer to become the supplier of choice for “green” projects that are burgeoning as environmentally-conscious building specifications become increasingly legislated.

‘’Combined, these factors mean that the reduction and eventual elimination of VOCs from paints is paramount for any aspirant coatings manufacturer with a social conscience as well as a profit-driven business plan which complies with the law,’’ he says.

In SA, the reduction of VOC levels of paints for all manufacturers has been a target for a number of years and follows the introduction of legislation dictating the removal of lead pigments from paints in the 1980s. 

Outlining the widening net of SA environmental protection legislation, Fleet notes that proposed amendments to the Hazardous Substances Act would modify allowable lead content limits from 600 parts per million (ppm) to 90 ppm and would include previously excluded industrial paints. 

‘’The introduction of the more stringent regulation was driven heavily by the coatings industry and only came into effect many years after the harmful effects of lead exposure were widely known,” Fleet says. 

For customers looking to purchase low-VOC products, the label on the container outlines the chemical make-up of the contents, and different paint manufacturers use a range of definitions to describe the VOC content in a coating. 

‘’As a rough guideline, an average water-based paint contains between 25 to 100 g/l of VOCs, while a low VOC paint contains less than 25 g/l of VOCs. Further down the scale of VOC content, a zero VOC paint contains less than 5 g/l of VOCs. Finally, solvent-free paint contains less than 5 g/l high boiling point solvents.”

‘‘Currently, the strictest international VOC regulations are at levels of 50 g/L (Europe), 50 g/L (California) and 40 g/L (Korea). More stringent are the voluntary international labelling schemes which have limits of 10 g/L (Nordic Swan Eco-label and European Eco-label), 1 g/L (Eco Mark Japan) and as low as 0.7 g/L (Blue Angel Germany). In South Africa, GBCSA’s limit is 16 g/L.  

So what are the local implications of environmental legislation in South Africa?

‘‘The GBCSA’s rating tool sets standards for green buildings within SA, enabling an objective assessment of how “green” a building is. The rating system includes a range of green measures that can be incorporated into a building. Points are awarded according to the measures incorporated and, after appropriate weighting, a total score is calculated, which determines the rating. Therefore, the “greener” or cleaner your product, the higher the rating you’re awarded. All Plascon Premium and Professional products marked with an Ecokind™ logo have VOC levels within the GBCSA standards for green building ratings, and therefore contribute to raising a building’s green rating,” Fleet comments. 


‘’Unfortunately, global VOC regulations and labelling are fragmented with little consolidation in sight. With South Africa being a late adopter when it comes to environmental regulation, private bodies such as the GBCSA will continue to drive VOC reductions, coupled with the paint industry, on a voluntary basis. No international regulations currently require levels below 5 g/L with very few labelling schemes requiring levels below even 10 g/L. With no national regulation forecast for the near future, the GBCSA standard of below 16 g/L for water-based interior paints remains a good benchmark for a low VOC paint that would stand up to most international labelling schemes and regulations. Kansai Plascon continually strives to manufacture coatings that minimise their impact on the planet,” says Fleet.

‘‘In line with the company’s on-going concern for the environment and human health, despite the lack of legislation, the goal of our 100% Green projects is to create zero VOC products for interior building surfaces to better enhance air quality.’’

Sable Park

Sable Park’s fully glazed lobbies capture north-facing views while strategically creating south-facing vistas through the building. The use of Plascon Professional Elastoshield means the building will be guarded from the extreme elements typical of Cape Town’s Century City area. Photography credit: David Southwood.