7 Good Things to Know about Recycling Powder Coatings

Posted on Wednesday, July 6, 2022

By Brian Spicer

You know how the powder coating process works. Charged powder particles are attracted to a metal part on a conveyor or rack, the parts are moved into an oven where the coating is cured. But have you thought about the powder particles that miss the part? The overspray powder you’ve been sending to the landfill has more value and versatility than you think.

Overspray makes up approximately 40% of the powder coating purchased in our industry1. In other words, powder coating applicators only get value for an estimated 60% of what they purchase. Overspray maintains the same quality as new virgin powder coatings, yet it’s typically sent to a landfill.

Today, powder coatings make up approximately 30% of all industrial coatings and, as the market grows, so will the associated waste stream. It is estimated that two billion pounds of powder coating overspray are sent to global landfills each year.

It doesn’t have to continue this way. Powder manufacturers and applicators will always require virgin raw materials and new batches of powder coatings for their operations, and sure, it’s convenient to dispose of overspray, but there are more sustainable, responsible, and economical ways to deal with this material.

Although powder coating recycling has been around for a while, emerging technologies offer significant benefits to both our industry and the environment, creating circular economies, efficiencies, and cost savings.

What should you know about this emerging segment of our industry? Here are seven things to consider:

1. Industry collaboration sparked our technology.
At Surplus Coatings in the Grand Rapids, MI, area, Dwayne Behrens has been collecting overspray since 1994. I joined him in 2010. Before Dwayne and I co-founded Innovakote in 2018, we had outlets that could use recycled overspray for textiles and decking, but those outlets were minimal. We decided they weren’t enough, and we wanted to do more.

We’d been honing our technology and process for years. With incentives from the state of Michigan, we brokered recycled overspray overseas, especially in China, from 2000–2013. When trade with China shut down due to new regulations in 2013, Dwayne and I traveled overseas to learn best practices from our partners. We took what we learned and combined it with knowledge gained through our own experiences at Surplus Coatings, and we started to build a plan.

When we founded Innovakote, we added Matt Johnson to our team. Matt, who has three decades of experience in the office furniture industry, became our technical and operations director. He helped us build systems and refine our recycling technology so we could repeatedly make the same product again and again. We joined the 2021 class of The Heritage Group Accelerator powered by Techstars, which helped us to scale up and prepare for a funding round. Now we’re actively working to supply 100% recycled powder coatings to major corporations in the office furniture industry.

2. Powder coatings can be more environmentally friendly than you thought.
In general, powder coatings are more sustainable than solvent-based coatings, but the raw materials used to make virgin coatings must be mined from the earth, refined, and transported. This manufacturing of virgin powder emits greenhouse gases. In addition, sourcing components like resins makes our industry dependent on foreign suppliers. All good reasons to use recycled powder coatings.

Matt has built his career around doing just that. He started out on the liquid side of the coatings business. “It was a dirty job and breathing the solvent fumes wasn’t what I wanted to do in a long-term career,” he says. Matt took a leave of absence to study overseas. When he returned, PPG was in the process of starting up a powder coating lab and manufacturing facility, and he volunteered to be part of that startup. “Powder coatings have low VOCs (volatile organic compounds). I’ve enjoyed making my career in an industry that’s gentle on the environment in comparison to liquid solvent-based coatings.”

Recycling powder coatings has an estimated 90%2 smaller greenhouse gas footprint than the process of producing virgin coatings. With our recycling process, we can get more value out of powder coatings. Since our raw material is already a finished powder coating, it takes minimal energy to process it into a finished good.

3. Overspray and baghouse fines aren’t junk.
In addition to the benefits of recycling overspray, we see other opportunities to help powder coating manufacturers.

The process of manufacturing and grinding powder coatings creates fine-sized particles known as “baghouse fines.” We’ve developed a process to help manufacturers recycle this material, too.

Between applicators and manufacturers, there’s a significant opportunity to capture the inherent value of these waste streams. Both overspray and baghouse fines hold value, and our processes help mine that value instead of throwing it away.

Sounds great. So why aren’t more people doing it? “Recycled powder coatings have an image problem,” Dwayne says. “In our industry, when something is perceived as lower quality, manufacturers known for high-quality products don’t want to be associated with it. But they don’t realize that 100% recycled coatings actually are high quality. The materials have already passed manufacturers’ tests. We’re just making quality materials usable once more.”

4. The recycling process ensures quality.
Our team has been perfecting our process to meet the specifications of clients with tight quality, color, and durability requirements. Matt is the man behind the curtain. A 37-year powder coating industry veteran, he draws upon his experience as an hourly employee, a manager, a vice president, and a director of operations at large companies in the industry.

Twenty-five years ago, while at IVC, Matt developed a process for recycling powder coatings as a cost-saving measure, but it was never promoted outside of the office furniture industry. Back then, most manufacturing companies didn’t want to be associated with recycling, but recycling doesn’t have to be a dirty word any longer.

How does the process work? “In essence, we’re remelting and regrinding extruded overspray back into a standard particle size,” Matt says. “We blend singular chemistry materials together using various colors to create a color match. The quality is already within the powder. We are minimally refining it. All the inherent qualities of the original material are still there.”

Dwayne notes that, if we recycled the same material over and over again, the performance and appearance properties would degrade, but that’s not what we do. We recycle all of an applicator’s overspray, which is mainly made up of virgin powder coatings.

Innovakote’s team tests all of the materials it develops and manufactures. Applicators and third-party labs verify that the recycled materials’ quality holds up. “I’ve taken overspray material and reprocessed it six times by itself to see how much the material degrades,” Matt says. “Surprisingly, it maintains a high percentage of its performance. Our process has a lot to do with that.” To create our 100% recycled product, we developed processes and systems to segregate, audit, sample, blend, and test coatings to ensure they meet customer specifications.

5. Powder coating recycling is not a threat. It fills a void.
Though recycling companies like ours are making significant strides, powder coating recycling likely will remain a relatively small percentage of the business. “We’ll never be a sole supplier of powder coating,” Dwayne says. “Our process will never replace traditional powder manufacturers. We’re the conduit that helps manufacturers and applicators become more sustainable.”

To some degree, that’s already happening. One of our customers has a goal that, by 2030, 50% of the goods it produces will include recycled content. There are business as well as environmental reasons for such goals.

“On the customer side of the office furniture industry, designers and architects seeking LEED certification ask about the percentage of recycled material in products,” Dwayne says. “People are scored against each other and, if a company scores higher on social or environmental aspects, it’s more likely to get the job.”

6. It saves money.
Recycled powder coatings cost an average of 50% less than traditional virgin product. You’ll likely pay on average about $3.50 per pound for virgin product and about $1.80 for a pound of recycled powder coating. The cost is slightly lower for non-visual applications and slightly higher for class A finishes3.

When you use recycled powder coatings, the secret to success lies in knowing where to use them. You can put recycled powder coating products to work if you’re willing to consider:

  • Gray scale, from white to black.
  • Earth tones.
  • Rough and textured finishes.
  • Simple, common chemistries (polyester TGIC and epoxy/polyester hybrid).
7. Lean practices have made it more difficult.

Many powder coating applicators have spray-to-waste application booths that collect comingled powder coatings, deposit them in drums or super sacks, then dispose of them. Some companies maintain reclaim systems, which blend overspray back into virgin material prior to spraying it, so they get nearly 100% usage. Based upon space constraints and cost, most companies no longer reclaim overspray material, especially those with high SKUs of colors.

Why is that? Unfortunately, lean manufacturing has made it harder to separate colors. Now companies place factory orders as customer orders come in the door. This practice, known as just-in-time (JIT) inventory management, means manufacturing and painting orders flow through the shop as orders are received. Gone are the days of running up large inventories of parts or finished goods and the opportunity to reclaim and recycle overspray as part of the manufacturing process. “You’re not just spraying black, black, black,” Matt says. “You end up with mixed recyclables that are harder to claim via internal systems.”

However, recycling companies like ours have found ways to bring recycling back into the process. Our raw materials come from Surplus Coatings, which collects overspray from more than 146 customer/suppliers.

It’s time for us to think like a community. Our environment is fragile and we need to fight for it. We are proud to offer these products and services within our industry. There are more exciting new developments to come!

Brian Spicer is co-founder of Innovakote.

1 This figure is based on years of experience at Surplus Coatings, evaluating customers’ purchased powder vs. the amount of powder collected for recycling. Each company application setup is different; however, companies that follow lean practices generate an average of 40% spray to waste.
2 Estimated; need a full LCA (Life Cycle Analysis) to validate.
3 Cost is dependent on specifications and access to coatings with the correct chemistry to meet potential customer demand.