A Cleaner Paints Business

The deterioration in ICI's financial performance last year may have been more striking than the change in its environmental performance, but at least one of its businesses turned in a noteworthy success story which the company will need others to replicate if it is to meet its waste reduction target.

ICI Paints launched a waste minimisation programme across its European operations in 1989. With 14 waste minimisation teams active in the area, the business cut its waste generation by 33% in 1991 - and further reductions are in the pipeline.

This performance was bettered by ICI Paints' biggest site in the UK, at Stowmarket in Suffolk. Employing 800 people, the site produces both decorative and refinish paints, and operates a large resins complex as well.

The waste minimisation effort at Stowmarket began in 1989 when, as Environment Manager David Bentley recalls, the site's annual waste disposal bill was rising rapidly towards £400,000 - due largely to tightening curbs on the disposal of liquid wastes to non-containment landfills.

The programme began with the establishment of three waste minimisation teams with a brief to pinpoint the sources and causes of waste generation at the site, identify priorities for waste reduction, and devise both low-cost short-term solutions and longer-term projects involving significant capital expenditures.

An early step in the programme was to charge the costs of waste disposal to each of the three production areas. Until then the bill had been part of the site overheads. "People's perception of waste is that it has no value," says David Bentley. "We wanted to raise awareness of the true costs of waste disposal. Passing the responsibility back to the production areas also makes it easier to set waste reduction targets and review progress."

The first, low-cost phase of the programme involved a critical examination of established practices. The exercise, as ICI's annual report observes, "uncovered a number of myths." A large proportion of the site's waste comprises aqueous washings arising from cleaning of vessels in which emulsion paint is mixed. It had been assumed that these needed to be thoroughly cleaned and the entire waste stream dumped if product quality was to be maintained, but it proved possible to cut down significantly on the amount of water used in the washing process and to recycle much of the waste stream without compromising on product standards.

A similar exercise at the resin plant resulted in the segregation of resin/solvent mixtures which had previously been treated as waste. The solvent is now sent for recovery, while the resin is reused. Improved segregation of dry waste at a new distribution centre also resulted in major cost savings. According to David Bentley, the centre has recently run for almost three months without generating any waste for disposal at all, while more than four tonnes of polythene packaging was recovered for recycling, giving a return of £600.

Overall, "picking the low-hanging fruit" - as he describes the initial phase of the programme - has resulted in the changes shown in the table below in the site's waste generation and disposal costs. To these must be added savings in raw material costs. On one plant alone annual material losses in waste have been cut from £100,000 to £50,000 since 1989.

1990 1991

Liquids and sludges (tonnes) 5,500 3,569

Non-process waste (tonnes) 1,200 746

Disposal bill (£000s) 286 192

The second stage of the programme will involve the installation of several add-on waste treatment plants. These will include an ultrafiltration unit to produce reusable water and paint residues from washings generated on the site's "big batch" formulation facility. A more humdrum investment will be a bigger baler and cages dotted around the works to improve the collection, segregation and handling of packaging wastes.

"We've been quite amazed at how successful we've been so far," says David Chadderton, ICI Paints' Environmental Affairs Manager. "So much of it is down to common sense." ICI's corporate management will doubtless be hoping that there is just as much scope elsewhere in the company as it heads towards its 1995 waste reduction target.

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