Keeping it together

8 September 2017

Sonia Sharma speaks to FEICA, the multinational association representing the European adhesive and sealant industry, about innovations within the sector.

The importance of adhesives can sometimes be overlooked; however they play an important part in the lives of each and every one of us. From packaging and building construction to hygiene products and water filtration, adhesive and sealant solutions hold the world’s most useful and important products together. Durable boxes, safe food packaging, drinkable water supplies and absorbent baby nappies would not be possible without adhesives.

Adhesives and sealants are vital to the integrity and safety of a package, and it is a market that holds high value.

A variety of sectors

FEICA is the multinational industry association that represents close to 800 adhesive and sealants producer in Europe through national association members in 16 countries, 20 direct company members and 11 affiliates. The adhesive and sealant industry represents about 2% of the total European chemical industry’s turnover, contributes more than €14 billion to the EU economy, employs more than 41,000 people and invests about €370 million on R&D.

In 2016, demand for adhesives and sealants in Europe included 19% for Germany; 10% for the UK and France; 9% for Russia and Italy; 7% for Spain, Turkey and Portugal; 6% for Poland; and 23% for the rest of Europe. By market segment, converting and packaging accounted for 34%; construction 27%; assembly, including footwear and leather 12%; woodworking 10%; and the transportation and the consumer or DIY segment accounted for 9% and 8% respectively.

Philip Bruce, secretary-general of FEICA says, “We call ourselves the voice of the European industry. We are located in Brussels, and our aim in life is that we are interfacing and advocating on behalf of our industry with the commission, to make sure that we are inputting into any regulatory issues, European challenges and European opportunities in areas such as the circular economy.”

Driving innovation

Different market segments require a specific adhesive or sealant for their product. Techniques are constantly evolving to incorporate factors such as product disposal and recycling once the adhesive reaches the end of its life. “Innovation is one of our key paths,” Bruce says. “Certainly, for the circular economy in some sectors – such as a computer’s electronic display – the parts are often held together by adhesives or by double-sided tape, as well as by soldering. So, when it comes to the end of the life, what do you do with it? How can you get any components out of that system? If the adhesive is too strong, then it means separating the components will basically break them and that, of course, is not very good for recycling.”

Ensuring that the correct adhesive or sealant system is used is vital for the recycling stream and the life cycle of the materials. Bruce says, “The commission calls these things eco-design. So, you are designing for recycle or economic design that includes energy use, as well as recycle, reuse and ease of repair.

“If you can’t separate the components to repair your computer, then you will have to throw the whole thing away. In most cases, it would be more sensible if you could recycle or repair your machine to get another three years out of it, rather than throw it away and buy a new one. One of the areas that our members are involved in is the development of adhesives that are, firstly, strong and can sustain the life of the computer when the consumer is using it; and, secondly, if there is more heat applied or another application, say infrared or microwaves, they can heat up or dismantle the parts much more regularly.

“In some cases, these developments make it easier for separation if it is at the end of life or for repair. So, rather than just having an extremely strong adhesive that will never separate unless you smash it, we create an adhesive that, with temperature, you are able to dismantle – we call it de-bond. There is a great interest in this for the automotive sector. If you have a car with fibre parts in the body structure – such as aluminium, steel and carbon fibre – and they are glued together, at the end of the car's life there should be a system where you can de-bond the parts so that they separate relatively easily and you can recycle them.”

Hybrid adhesive development

At the 2017 AIMCAL Awards Competition, Unifoil Corporation earned a Marketing Award in the 'Packaging: Non-Food' category as the converter for a holiday beverage carrier for Budweiser beer from Anheuser-Busch InBev. Selectively applied strips of metallising on the front, top and rear panels of the package eliminated any gluing concerns on the packaging line and reduced cost and weight. The judges said, “The selective metallising adds value to the package. If the side flaps had been metallised, you’d probably see some scuffing caused by the flap-folding and gluing process, and contact with conveyor rails.”

The selective metallising provided a highly bondable surface for gluing, demonstrating how paper and packaging adhesives are developing.

Bruce says, “I think that, for structural adhesives, you would be looking at 5% growth every year, and for paper and packaging adhesives, it will depend on the state of the economy, but it will probably be estimated at 2.5−3.0% growth. We see adhesives continuing to grow faster than GDP. Solvent-based adhesives and sealants have generally been reducing, while one area of growth is water-based adhesives.

“However, if you actually look at the fastest-growing sector for adhesives, percentage-wise it is often in structural adhesives. It is replacing screwing. Adhesives can stick multiple materials together, so if you go back to components on a car, laptop or computer, adhesives can stick silicone, glass and plastic together. Previously, you would have needed more screws and soldering, which is frankly slower for separating or de-bonding in the recycling stream.”

Bruce continues, “There is also growth in construction, but it tends to be driven by how much construction is happening. The sealants are very good, they are well known, and the adhesives that are used tend to be the lower end. I think polyurethanes are probably the most general material that can be used in the chemical sector; the non-waterbased polyurethanes are really big. We are starting to see from some of our members that they are working with co-hybrid adhesives. Cyanoacrylate adhesive tends to cure very quickly, but it is quite brittle and can be a little rigid, meaning it could break with a lot of use. For instance, if it was holding a truck together, due to the movement of the truck, the cyanoacrylate will eventually break. Whereas a polyurethane system tends to be much tougher and can move quite a lot as it is very flexible, so if you can develop a hybrid with a cyanoacrylate with a polyurethane together, you can get the fast cure of the cyanoacrylate and the toughness of the polyurethane.”

Challenges and restrictions

The adhesive and sealant industry is prominent in Europe, being valued at €14 billion in 2016. “Europe, frankly, leads the world. We have more big European-headquartered companies in the adhesives and sealants industry than most of the other sectors, more than the US or Japan. So, this is an important sector for the European market for continued growth” Bruce states.

“In Europe, the biggest market for producers, as well as for consumption of adhesives, is Germany. Most of the major adhesive producers in Europe are either headquartered in Germany or have a significant factory there. It is a very important market for my members, as the Germans are extremely technically sophisticated, with a lot of the leading developments in adhesives coming from Germany,” he explains.

“Europe has become much more effective. For example, if there is some legislation that is driving a need for a new adhesive in Germany, it very quickly goes to Brussels, and then they will recommend that all of the other members should be doing the same thing. It doesn’t stay within a country for long, and if you’re manufacturing adhesives in France, you will have to conform to German standards and vice versa.

“Therefore, from a manufacturing company perspective, they are all really keen to have European legislation and regulation in place so that their products, which could be manufactured in Germany, France or Spain, will be able to be sold across Europe.”

Within Europe, legislation and regulations are undergoing rapid changes, and one of the biggest challenges that the market currently faces is the problem of diisocyanate polyurethane. Bruce says, “The European Commission is currently consulting on legislation that is likely to be implemented within the next six to 12 months that qualifies restriction conditions on diisocyanates.”

The restriction condition means that if an adhesive or sealant has more than 0.1% of pre-diisocyanate, and it emits more than 0.1% of diisocyanate in reaction, then a company must provide training in how to use that product. Emissions of 0.1% and under are exempt.

“This restriction condition means that if we do not do the training and the product emits more than 0.1% diisocyanate when it is in use, then that product will be banned from being sold in the European market,” Bruce says.

“The German regulatory authority was concerned about the levels of diisocyanate. Other countries agreed with them and it is now going to the EU regulatory committee to be discussed. FEICA has established an EU restriction-condition working group. We have 16 different members providing representatives to this working group, and we are going through the endproducts that are manufactured using diisocyanate to check whether we need to train everyone about those sealants, or whether we will be able to get an exemption under the regulations, because it could be less than 0.1% emission,” he says.

“We are working through the list of products now. In sealants, we are developing an exemption dossier to be able to show the commission or the European regulators that these sealants stay within the regulation houses established by law, or a future law to be implemented. We are working to make sure that our members are producing products that can continue to be sold within the guidelines set by the regulations.”

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Proposed changes to European legislation and regulation will have an impact on the adhesives industry and could restrict some ingredients.
Adhesives have to bind at speed and be resealable, leading to packaging manufacturers to develop new technology.

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