A chemical consultant’s view on BPA

As noted on my previous post, here is my full Q&A interview with Michael Brown, president of consulting firm StrategyMark, on his views about bisphenol-A.

Mr. Brown’s previous chemical career highlights include as global coatings director of Quaker Chemical (2006-08), partner and VP of ChemQuest Group (1999-2006); business manager at DuPont (1981-1999), process engineer at PPG Industries and Sun Petroleum.

Q: Which alternatives to BPA use have you seen demand increasing?

Polycarbonate seems to have drawn the majority of the attention for BPA, likely because of its close association to infant and toddler care products, especially in non-packaging (sippy cups, baby bottles). A clear (no pun) winner in this area has been the copolyesters of Eastman with its Tritan brand, which was reportedly sold out shortly after the BPA issue erupted last year. Its success has been largely due to its “drop in” match of physical and processing properties versus polycarbonate. Polypropylene is likely the second winner in this space, not only due to the BPA issue, but also a longer trend toward reducing the material costs.

The impact on epoxy can coatings has been much less pronounced, in part due to a lack of a direct link to the infant/toddler markets. By that, I mean that the can lining is often clear and not easily seen or understood by the public as opposed to a bottle which can be touched and held.

Q: In your own opinion, what should the chemical industry do in tackling the BPA safety issue?

In my opinion, the industry is doing all it can right now to counter the concerns “technically” with actual data. It is also my opinion that it is too late to have a meaningful impact on turning around the momentum against BPA in infant/toddler care. However, the industry could slow or even stop the impact on the rest of the polycarbonate and epoxy markets.

I think the industry should learn from this experience:

  • That consumers can react quickly and aggressively on green and health issues – more so now than ever due “viral” dissemination of information and a propensity for consumers to be more savvy about the source of materials and food they consume (China effect?).

  • Issues that the industry believes (from data) are not a problem, can become perceptual and public relations issues, an area that the chemical industry has historically struggled with
  • Trade groups should create committees with the sole purpose of constantly reviewing the risk potential of issues and preparing contingency plans should they erupt. (BPA was a simmering issue long before it erupted in 2009 and could serve as a case history). The risk assessment should be both technical as well as perceptual and the contingency should include public relations plans aimed at consumers

Q: Do you see this issue as an opportunity for some chemical companies?

As seems to happen with the issues, the winners are usually from outside the immediate industry and the losers are the incumbent companies. So, yes, there is opportunity for chemical companies, but not likely those wedded to BPA-related technologies. Eastman is a good example. Start-up companies are especially adept at identifying issues that the large chemical companies don’t properly address and using them to successfully enter markets

Q: Do you see more BPA alternatives down the road? Who are the companies aside from Eastman right now that are pursuing these developments?

I think the use of BPA-alternatives outside of baby care will depend on the ability of industry to continue to make its case with real data and confine the issue to baby care. If they lose that battle of public opinion (which will likely play out completely over the next few months), it is likely we will see polycarbonate continue to lose share in consumer related products, particularly food/beverage contact as well as consumer electronics, both are sensitive markets for “health” and “green” related issues. If the displacement of polycarbonate expands beyond food/beverage, polypropylene will increasingly be the winner.

I do not see an impact long-term on the use of polycarbonate and epoxy in industrial applications.

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Look out for more Q&A’s about BPA coming from various industry groups in the next few weeks.

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