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Marine paints shed commodity status on environment concern

Kunal Bose 

The ever-growing fleet of ships carrying people and goods from one port to another is the primary pollutant of sea water and disrupter of fragile marine life. While fuel emissions by ships contribute to global warming, anti-fouling paints, applied on the hulls of ships to fend off growth of organisms, have also been found to be a significant offender. This is because of the rampant application of tribtutyltin (TBT), a dangerous ingredient of anti-fouling coatings.

In September 2008, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) banned the use of TBT-based antifouling coating on ship hulls. This followed environmentalists researching and documenting the harmful effects of TBT on sea water and marine life. Application of TBT-based coatings was first stopped on small vessels, owing to their harmful effects in inshore areas. In 2001, proof of identical TBT effects on open waters led IMO to adopt an international convention on the control of harmful antifouling systems on ships.

After a global ban on the use of TBT was first proposed, why did it take about eight years for IMO to implement the ban? This was because till then, leading global paints manufacturers considered marine coatings a commodity. As a result, the sector felt no compulsion to invest in research and development (R&D) to make environment-friendly coatings.

Now, however, under unrelenting pressure from governments (led by those in the European Union) and environmentalists, leading paints manufacturers---from AkzoNobel and Nippon Paint to Jotun---are investing heavily to periodically introduce new-generation marine coatings. What is proving good for China and India is global paints leaders, especially AkzoNobel, have decided to use the two countries as important R&D hubs. AkzoNobel is set to allocate 15 per cent of its global paints R&D budget to China by 2015. India, too, will be a major beneficiary of European groups progressively shifting R&D work to Asia. This is in conjunction with their expanding production base in select Asian countries that have come to dominate the world shipbuilding and ship-repairing sectors.

An increase in the preference for eco-friendly products is an important development in the global marine coatings market. As new coatings are increasingly proving to be environment-friendly, these are allowing vessels to encounter lower friction in negotiating sea waters. This is helping shipping companies save up to 40 per cent on the fuel front. Thanks to significant improvements in coatings, ships are now emitting less carbon.

An official in the shipping sector says, "Marine coatings are required to be designed with particular functional properties to adequately protect vessel surfaces. At the same time, coatings manufacturers are increasingly being required to offer products that contribute to saving fuel and don't foul the marine environment. As is the case with governments and environmentalists, ship owners have become a pressure point for paints producers. Ships on sail remain on watch."

Under pressure from multiple centres, the sector is now quick in replacing compounds in paints that harm the environment. This was seen when copper-based coatings were introduced as replacements for TBT compounds. But soon, concern was raised about dissolved metals in bays and basins. It did not take much time for paints manufacturers to release new sets of biocide-free coatings.

The state of the global shipping sector, which is finally showing signs of a revival, decides the fortunes of marine coatings producers. In a recent report, Moody's said the prospects for global shipping in the next 12-18 months would be raised from negative to stable, the first time since 2011. The report, however, cautioned the outlook could turn negative in case vessel supply exceeded demand by more than two per cent.

The improvement in shipping is on two counts: First, most Western economies and Japan have faring doing better. Second, in attempts to shed overcapacity, which has kept freight rates low, shipping companies have started postponing or cancelling new building contracts, idling vessels and scrapping inefficient vessels. "We are mildly enthused by the forecast of World Trade Organization economists that this year, global trade will grow 4.7 per cent, against the average growth of 2.2 per cent in the past two years. Trade growth is forecast at 5.3 per cent next year. For us, everything boils down to the volume of vessel space requisition by shippers for transporting goods across the globe," says a paints sector official. A report by Dublin-based business intelligence agency Research and says coatings demand is to grow at a compound annual rate of 11.29 per cent till at least 2018. One of the key factors to contribute to this high demand growth is the likely expansion of the oil and gas sector. Most are saying the dry bulk market is set for a recovery in the next few weeks, aided by an improved balance between demand for shipping space for new vessels, firm grain trade out of the US and South America and low iron ore prices, boosting buying by China. The container segment, however, remains in the dumps.

  • In 2001, IMO adopted an international convention on control of harmful antifouling on ships
  • In September 2008, IMO banned the use of TBT-based antifouling coating on ship hulls
  • Paints manufacturers such as AkzoNobel, Nippon Paint and Jotun are investing heavily to introduce new marine coatings
  • Moody's said the prospects for global shipping in the next 12-18 months would be raised from negative to stable
  • WTO economists estimate this year, global trade will grow 4.7 per cent, against the average growth of 2.2 per cent in the past two years

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First Published: Mon, May 26 2014. 22:33 IST