Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Are Low VOC Coatings Really All That Green?

Staff article

Sutherland Welles Ltd®, located in the hamlet of North Hyde Park, VT, produces a wide range of Polymerized Tung Oil finishes for a wide variety of applications. Talking to Mary Goderwis, CEO of Sutherland Welles, we learned some very interesting points about volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and thought our readers might want to know about her insights, as they considered choices for finishes in their homes.

VOCs are any carbon compounds that evaporate at room temperature. There are many kinds, and they are not equally harmful. The ones of concern for medicine and the environment are those that are poisonous, and they are regulated by such agencies as the EPA. They include gasoline, home heating oil, fumes off-gassed from plastics, and many architectural coatings like paints and varnishes.

Like all regulated VOCs, those used in coatings are viewed with grave suspicion by many environmentally conscious people. We should consider this point carefully because they are different from one another and need to be treated differently. Clearly, for example, formaldehyde is not the same as ethanol. We might argue that when the government established standards, VOCs were considered together in ways that were over-hasty; those for coatings were considered together with those from such heavy polluters as vehicles and power plants. In some ways, the result was not what we might have hoped for.

As Goderwis reports, “It was simple. The Architectural Coating industry is actually very small with a limited number of players. We were not as well represented by lobbyists in Washington as other industries.” Regulations were introduced based on a “feel-good approach,” without much science to back them. She explains, “You know when a company as big as Sherwin-Williams tries to reverse these restrictions and fails, small businesses are doomed.”

Very few coatings could meet the new standards in packaging of a gallon or more. Water is one, but, as Goderwis explains, tung oil can’t be put into a water-based formulation. There is only one other solvent available to oil finish manufacturers that allows them to prepare finishes that meet the lower VOC standards in their formulas. Unfortunately, that solvent is very toxic to humans and aquatic life if spilled. Goderwis feels that for companies like hers and for professionals who use these products in their everyday work life, that health risk is unacceptable. And in truth, the performance of coatings using this solvent has also been compromised.

With a focus on producing products from a resource like sustainably grown tung oil, Goderwis could not in good conscience adopt the more toxic solvent, even if it meant lowering the VOCs or even being able to make a zero-VOC product. She is convinced the potential damage of the solvent is simply not worth the risk.

The folks at Sutherland Welles developed a proprietary solvent made from waste peels of oranges and other citrus fruit produced by the juice industry. Using it, Sutherland Welles can provide products with a range of 15 to 48 years of proven performance in quart quantities, selling it at a special pricing option to offset the higher quart cost. Botanical Polymerized Tung Oil was created long before before the recent trend for “Green” products, and has served them and their customers well.

“Time has a way of revealing the flaws in some approaches to the ‘green’ industry,” Goderwis explains. She points out that when a product with no VOCs needs to be replaced frequently, it may ultimately be less kind to the environment than a longer-lasting one with low levels of rather non-destructive VOCs that can be maintained instead of being replaced. Most finishes need to be sanded when they are replaced, putting organic dust into the environment, but Polymerized Tung Oil only needs to be re-oiled, without sanding every five to eight years.

When it comes to choosing a finish for the homes or furniture there are often better choices — healthier, more cost-effective, and in the long view better for the environment — than low-VOC products. One bonus is that tung oil comes from a tree that helps renew the oxygen in the air and consumes the carbon dioxide produced in the atmosphere.

The Sutherland Welles website is at Photos are courtesy of Sutherland Welles.

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