Profile: Creating jobs with unwanted paint
Following our campaign to improve circular economies for polymers in paint, which saw over 200 letters written to UK politicians and questions raised in parliament, we spoke to Lee Cole. Lee is managing director and co-founder of Paint360 – the UK’s largest paint remanufacturer, which also runs as a social enterprise.
How does paint remanufacturing work?
Everyone told us at the start we couldn’t make it work economically, as paint is a fairly cheap product – well, that was like a red rag to a bull. But what we’re doing is simply what decorators have done ages before ‘Throwaway Britain’ became what it is now. For ages they always took their leftover paint and mixed it together to create a base. And that’s all we’re doing essentially – sifting through the good stuff and the bad stuff and categorising it in a way that we know works for us, then turning it into new paint. Controlling colour is the hardest thing that we’ve had to do – it’s taken nine years to understand. It’s all about how you sort the material in the beginning – there are no wizard-like spells.
What are your products?
We did start off by offering a massive range of products, but have since fine-tuned the offering. What we really want to do is make good paint that is affordable for everyone. For me, the cherry on the cake is our social impact while offering a lower carbon product. So we’ve narrowed most of the products down now to a contract emulsion, a small treatment range of products, an eggshell and silk. At the moment we’re trying to launch a retail brand, focussing on telling the story about what we do.
How does the social enterprise side of the business work?
We employ young people with barriers to employment – they are introduced to us from the local job centre, typically those finding it difficult to get placed. We don’t really delve into why this may be the case, if it works for them and for us that’s great. And it’s very much a two-way street – it’s a messy job! Some want to stay forever, some use us as a starting point. We’ve had one young lad recently who went on to become an apprentice electrician after we helped him write his CV, and one who went on to making robots. In total we’ve helped I think 37 people into employment.
Our reports on polymers in liquid formulation (PLFs) highlighted much needs to be done to improve sustainability. How does your work contribute to this?
Of the 55 million litres of waste paint produced every year 2% of it is recycled and 98% goes to landfill or incineration – that makes you really wonder what’s going on in this world. I mean, how much energy do you get from burning water-based paint? It’s just burning water! In our experience, 70–80% of unwanted paint is perfectly reusable. To understand what our work means for companies using our finished goods in terms of carbon, we worked with Bath University on a project funded by Skanska after winning their environmental award. It turned out that each litre of paint we reuse saves enough embedded carbon to drive a transit van five miles.
What more needs to be done?
The waste industry is very mature and not the quickest to change. It is built by trading on who can bulk the material most to get the cheapest disposal costs, which has also led to material going all over the world. It’s got to change; there aren’t the resources to carry on the way we’re going. I’m a great believer that if you can’t use it all or repurpose it and or recycle it, then we shouldn’t be making it. But how you convince the government to enforce the waste hierarchy differently is well above my pay grade. I think it’s got to be incentivised to such a degree that people want to do it and then it becomes second nature.
What does the future hold for you?
I just want to disrupt the current situation, impact on all that waste and create jobs. We’ve expanded three times in the past nine years and we need to expand again. We’ve already started looking at a site in Wales, but it would make sense to have one in Scotland, it would make sense to have one down south as well. To repurpose paint takes a lot of space, and this can be a burden when you’re trying to balance the books – but if we need to do it, we need to do it.
Read our PLFs reports here and join in our campaign to create circular economies for paint here
- +44 (0) 20 7440 3351
- Send us an email