Can paint companies pare TiO2 use any further?

Published: Friday, 09 June 2017

With the recent rise in prices, and ongoing concerns about environmental effects, traders are asking if there is any room to further cut the use of the white pigment.

Could rising titanium dioxide prices drive another wave of substitutions, similar to that which cut the use of the pigment back in 2011-12?

With titanium dioxide prices breaking multi-year highs, some market participants are reporting a trend toward decreased inclusion of titanium dioxide in coatings.

One European titanium trader told IM the move was being driven by discomfort with the volatility of titanium dioxide prices, which makes it hard for pigment consumers to forecast margins. (See chart below for the titanium dioxide price development over the past 6 months.)

TiO2 prices Dec 2016 - Jan 2017  

And an executive at an international pigment company said sales of a lower-titanium white pigment were "though the roof".

"TiO2 has always been the expensive element [in coatings]" he said.

Last time titanium dioxide prices rose sharply, back in 2011-12, a change in formula reduced the use of titanium in many commonly used coatings by up to 40%.

Rather the extension to stretch the amount of titanium dioxide used with the addition of binders and extenders including calcium carbonate, kaolin, and talc, as well as other additives to maintain the performance of the coating.

But there is some scepticism as to whether a similar reduction can be achieved now, without compromising the quality of the coatings.

"All technicians worked to reduce [titanium dioxide use] back then," a European dealer told IM, saying it was unlikely that further reductions could be achieved.

"The big wave of substitution happened back in 2011 [when] people had room to substitute" he said.

Environmental burden

Other market participants saw the drive toward substitution driven more by environmental factors than price considerations.

"Titanium dioxide substitution is not due to higher prices, it is the sustainability," a calcium carbonate producer, who sells into the pigment market, talking to IM earlier this year, said.

The production of titanium dioxide carries a controversial environmental burden, particularly when the ore is converted through the sulphate process, which produces large amounts of acidic waste.

In China, the worlds’ top titanium dioxide exporter, production is overwhelming sulphate-route.

The environmental burden of the industry has left it in the firing line of the Chinese government, which is on a drive to reduce pollution.

In fact, this slowdown of Chinese production, as sulphate-route producers are shut down ahead of a planned drive to increaseless-polluting chloride-route output, is a key driver of the recent price increase.

And buyers are echoing the concerns of the Chinese government.

A purchasing director at a major international paint company told IM "we are always trying to lower titanium dioxide use."

The director said that it was environmental concerns, not current elevated prices, which were the encouraging the ongoing drive to reduce usage.

"It’s not a sustainable product," he said, "it always makes sense to reduce it". 

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