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P2 Impact

These businesses are coloring a triple win for industrial painting

Take a deep breath. Or maybe you shouldn't. Depending on where you work and live, the air you breathe may not be so healthy. In addition to pollutants emitted from automobiles and power production, many industries use cleaning, coating and painting products with harmful chemicals that evaporate into the air. 

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are carbon compounds that, upon evaporating, react with nitrous oxides and sunlight to form ground-level ozone, also known as smog. While ozone in the upper atmosphere is beneficial to the Earth and protects it from UV radiation, it is a harmful pollutant in the lower atmosphere. Reducing VOCs is an effective way to reduce ground-level ozone. 

Disposal of chemicals such as paint products is also an issue that can pose a risk to water resources. Toxins can persist in the environment for decades, contaminating the soil and threatening a community’s water supply for years after they are discarded.

Five Minnesota companies whose manufacturing processes involve painting have helped clean up the air we breathe and reduce pollutants going into the environment by adhering to the three "Rs" known as "reduce, reuse, recycle." The first four companies were identified through a search of the Toxic Release Inventory by the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program at the University of Minnesota (MnTAP).


Traditional liquid paint contains high concentrations of VOCs and hazardous air pollutants (HAP), a more stringently regulated class of VOC that includes xylene, toluene and ethylbenzene. Such chemicals have been found to cause cancer, reproductive issues, respiratory illnesses and other ailments in people exposed to them at harmful levels. 

In recent years, the chemical industry has worked to develop low-VOC paints that contain higher solids and lower liquid solvent content. Many of these paints are also HAP-free, so they are a good choice for companies wanting to safeguard employees and the environment. 

Minneapolis-based Graco makes fluid-handling pumps and spray equipment. They also paint the parts they manufacture. The company sought to reduce their VOC emissions while increasing production. 

"Environmental performance is important at Graco," said Eric Lillyblad, Graco’s environmental specialist. "We strive to use less energy, generate less waste and water and seek the flexibility afforded by maintaining our permit status." After testing several formulations to satisfy color and durability needs, the company chose a paint formulation that lowered toluene by 94 percent.    

Another option to reduce VOCs is to switch from liquid to powder coatings, which are VOC- and HAP-free. Because they don’t emit vapors (or strong smells), powder coating shops don’t require as much ventilation, which can lower cold-climate heating costs. In addition, parts that are powder coated see fewer surface defects, need less rework and tend to be more durable. 

Lou-Rich, located in Albert Lea, Minn., manufactures a variety of custom parts, including agricultural equipment and medical devices which, like Graco, they paint in-house. The company planned to replace one of two outdated liquid paint lines. After weighing their options, they chose to replace the liquid paint line with a powder coating line. The switch resulted in an 86 percent reduction of VOCs plant-wide. 

Similarly, AGCO, an agricultural equipment manufacturer based in Jackson, Minn., has three paint lines. They wanted to reduce their VOC reporting requirements and looked to incorporating powder coatings in their process. Because some parts that need painting have gaskets and O-rings that could be damaged during the high-temperature powder curing process, they needed to maintain liquid paint lines. By changing one line from liquid to powder, the company reduced its xylene emissions by 56 percent.


Solvent distillation is a process in which once-used solvent is filtered and used again. Reusing solvent is an effective way to reduce the amount of raw material the company needs to purchase, while also reducing the hazardous waste they need to manage. This saves the company money at both ends of the process.

EDCO’s facility in Hopkins, Minn., paints the steel roofing, siding, shingles and gutters it manufactures. Before color changes on the painting line, the company uses solvents to clean the equipment. After implementing solvent distillation, the company reduced their virgin solvent purchases by 52 percent and reduced the volume of hazardous waste generated.

The distillation unit saves them $12,500 per year on purchase and disposal costs with a two-year payback period. It is important to note that MnTAP has seen payback periods for implementing solvent distillation as low as six months. “I highly recommend anyone using solvent cleaning chemicals to reuse them,” said Michael Bergeson, EDCO plant manager.


For companies using powder coating paint lines, recycling is another effective way to divert waste from landfills. Surplus Coatings in Michigan accepts leftover, discarded, over-sprayed or unused powder for recycling. The by-product is used as a bonding agent in filters, carpets, mats and clothing. 

Huot Manufacturing, in St. Paul, Minn. makes products to help machine shops stay organized, including carts, cabinets and racks, and also offers powder coating services. The company chooses to recycle its over-sprayed powder rather than send it to the dump. "The cost was a wash compared to other powder disposal methods, but we think it’s worth it to keep our waste out of landfills," said Paul Huot, CEO of the company. 

By implementing the three Rs, businesses that operate paint lines can save time and money while reducing their hazardous air pollutant emissions. That’s a triple win.

The Minnesota Technical Assistance Program helps Minnesota businesses identify pollution prevention and reduction opportunities. Find us at Outside Minnesota, the Environmental Protection Agency website has more. More detailed case studies are available on the MnTAP website.

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