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Article related to: People and perspectives
Thinking big about substitution
Gemini Adhesives Ltd is a small British SME manufacturing adhesives for the construction industry. Their products are used to adhere PVC* profiles to the edges of resilient flooring in environments such as hospitals and schools to allow thorough cleaning. A worrying recent trend has seen shrinkages and a breakdown of the adhesive bonds with failed areas becoming harbours for potentially dangerous microbes, and requiring major repairs. It was discovered that phthalate softeners were the cause and Gemini found a viable solution - phthalate free profiles.
Managing Director, Andrew Douglas, started the business in a garage with his brother 11 years ago and reached an annual turnover of around € 6 million from manufacturing and selling adhesives around the world. When technical failures started to appear a few years ago, Mr Douglas was baffled and worried that his products may be partly blamed for the problem.
"Our products are rigorously tested and were used without problems for years until the recent failures were noticed. Some arise in newly constructed hospitals so they are not due to the age of the installation. There may be around 5 km of this in a hospital so repair costs are considerable. We had not changed our adhesive formulation and PVC profile suppliers were unaware of changes to their formulations. I therefore analysed the leading profiles to check their chemical constituents and independent laboratories confirmed a consistently high concentration of phthalates. We concluded, together with our scientific consultants, that phthalates were responsible for the technical failures."
Phthalates are the most common plasticisers and do not chemically bond with the PVC polymer. Under certain conditions, they migrate from the product into the surrounding environment and shrinkage occurs. Upon entering the adhesive, they break down the bond.
The safer alternative
Mr Douglas admits to, at first, hardly knowing anything about phthalates or the REACH Regulation. "I quickly learnt that some plasticisers are so hazardous to human health that they have been placed on the list of substances of very high concern (SVHCs)."
This was a turning point for the future of Gemini. "I realised that not only were we providing adhesives for installations which may fail, but we were actually working with materials which were potentially unsafe for people working or living with them. I concluded that the way forward to overcome failures and to avoid toxicity issues was to make our own phthalate free profiles".
In arriving at his conclusion, Mr Douglas had reviewed information from ECHA on Bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP). This is the most common plasticiser used in flooring profiles and has already moved from the Candidate List to the Authorisation List, which means that after 21 February 2015 it can only be placed on the market for authorised uses. Some manufacturers have replaced DEHP with other phthalates.
However, Gemini found these replacements on non-governmental organisations' (NGOs) lists of hazardous substances which may move on to the REACH SVHC list. Gemini needed a formulation requiring little change in the foreseeable future.
After extensive research, Mr Douglas chose Tioctyltrimellitate (TOTM) as the substitute for three important reasons. "Firstly, it is not on the REACH or NGO lists and is approved for food contact packaging and for medical devices. Secondly, it has a heavy molecular weight and will not easily migrate into the adhesive or the environment thus avoiding failures and significantly reducing potentially harmful emissions into the building's atmosphere. Finally, we could manufacture and supply it at the current market price. We therefore created a new manufacturing facility and launched our phthalate free profiles with a written lifetime performance guarantee." He points out that manufacturing and supplying the profiles and the adhesives together has many advantages.
The business case
The next step was marketing. The company advertised the new profiles in the flooring industry's professional magazine where, by chance, Mr Douglas found an article on phthalates by sustainability consultant Alan Best. "I quickly got in touch with him, because we were preaching the same message and he could help me to hit the flooring supply chain," he says.
Alan Best was both enthusiastic and cautious. He liked the concept but wanted to know more about TOTM and its safety claims. He submitted the case study to the Substitution Support Portal (SUBSPORT) to have it scrutinised by their toxicologists. They confirmed the TOTM claims and published the case. Mr Best also recommended replacing Gemini's carbon black pigment which is classified as Group 2B and possibly carcinogenic to humans, and this was implemented.
The next step was to research the potential market. "From a commercial perspective would anybody care if Gemini says that their product was phthalate free? Who will buy it and at what price? This knowledge is vital," Alan Best says.
They contacted Skanska, a world leading construction group, who have strong commitments to green construction products. Skanska gave great encouragement and advised Gemini to expand from a small number to a full range of phthalate free profiles. Gemini took the advice and decided to invest further time and money in their project and also added a water based adhesive to their range.
Raising the game
With Skanska and other major players confirming interest, Gemini committed to raising its profile as a professional company. Together with Alan Best, Gemini prepared a business strategy targeting niche segments such as hospitals instead of competing on price alone in a saturated market. The first major achievement was accreditation under ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 standards for quality assurance and environmental management.
|Eco graphic for safer chemicals content.|
"REACH and other legislation are certainly increasing interest and demand for safer chemicals so we created an eco graphic for the profiles claiming ‘safer chemicals content' and Gemini now use this in promotional materials. This is compliant with ISO 14021 for self-declared environmental claims. We wanted to create something for safer chemicals that customers could recognise as readily as the logo for recycling. ISO 14021 ensures that green claims are credible and supported by readily available third party evidence," Mr Best explains.
Gemini has added a recycling service for their adhesives which come in metal containers. These now display a phone number for their free collection and recycling. Gemini PVC profiles are also recyclable without any concerns regarding DEHP content. Mr Best also convinced Gemini to sign up to the Carbon Action Standard demonstrating a commitment to reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions, which are important factors for example to architects.
"In order to offer all these advantages for the same market price as other companies we have been re-investing profits from our adhesives business into creating the PVC profiles venture. We did this both out of necessity to protect our business and from our belief that the listing of DEHP on the SVHC list is creating a business opportunity for better and safer substitute products," Mr Douglas says, and adds, "We moved ahead one step at a time, starting with a limited range which sold well and then expanding to the full range now available. The more we produce the lower our costs become."
The company has already sold over one million metres of phthalate free profiles and its business is growing. It originally employed only 10 staff, but is now recruiting more to meet demand.
"It's been quite a journey and I am glad to see that we have reached this far. All the money we have invested is ours, so it is good to see that it is now coming back. We are, however, far from complacent and there is still much to do."
Recipes for success
Andrew Douglas' advice to other small companies thinking about substitution is to just go for it. "There is plenty of help available. Some of it is free, some at low cost. Look, for example, at SUBSPORT. It is pretty good. If you want to check ideas for alternative chemicals, use the internet, it's all there. The most important thing is to think ahead. If you are looking to change don't substitute with a potential problem chemical otherwise it could cost you a fortune to repeat the exercise".
Mr Best is convinced that this example of commercial success based on a viable substitute should give confidence to other small companies currently dependant on SVHCs to give substitution a try.
*PVC: Poly(vinyl chloride) is the third-most widely produced polymer, after polyethylene and polypropylene. PVC is used in construction because it is more effective than traditional materials such as copper, iron or wood in pipe and profile applications. It can be made softer and more flexible by the addition of plasticisers, the most widely used being phthalates.
Gemini Adhesives Ltd
Gemini manufactures a technically advanced range of adhesives and flexible extrusions that can be found across the globe.
The company strives to be as environmentally friendly as possible without compromising quality and still remaining competitively priced.
Interview by Virginia Mercouri
Top image and logo: Gemini
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