Paintback’s Chief Executive, Karen Gomez, explains how the company helped divert more than five million kilograms of consumer paint and packaging away from landfill since its launch.
With a diverse background in communications, finance and corporate governance, Karen Gomez, Chief Executive of the takeback paint scheme Paintback – describes herself as a “generalist”.
As a leader of the newly formed product stewardship organisation, Karen has worked hand in glove with the paint industry, state, federal and local government sector, diverting an impressive five million kg of paint and packaging from landfill.
“Product stewardship is about solving problems with your stakeholders and if you can’t do that, things will tend to fall over,” Karen explains.
The independent not-for-profit organisation prides itself as being the first unified voluntary scheme for consumers and trade in the world. It’s supported by major paint companies, including Dulux Group, PPG, Valspar, Haymes Paint, Rust-Oleum and Resene, who together represent 30 brands.
Paintback’s reason for existence is based on minimising the detrimental effects of paint waste and packaging on the environment. It’s estimated that about seven million litres of architectural and decorative paint sold in Australia each year requires disposal, according to Paintback.
“To put it in perspective, seven million litres of paint is a quantity that could fill three Olympic swimming pools,” Karen says.
While paint is a low toxicity, high volume waste, it comprises some environmentally harmful substances, including heavy metals and surfactants which can hinder oxygen and photosynthesis when disposed of in waterways. Paint may also contribute to leachate when disposed of in landfill in solid form.
GETTING THE SCHEME OFF THE GROUND
The idea of a product stewardship scheme began just under 10 years ago when the Australian Paint Manufacturers’ Federation Inc (APMF), which represents the major paint manufacturers, initiated discussions.
“The paint industry understood the responsibilities for end-of-life products. However, it was a really challenging process in some ways, because you’re asking companies that compete with each other to sit down and recognise that they’ve got a common problem,” Karen explains.
In the years that followed, the manufacturers worked together on a strategy.
Their timing was assisted by the Federal Government listing paint waste under its Product Stewardship Act in 2013, which meant the government could regulate paint disposal within 12 months if manufacturers failed to take action.
“The product stewardship listing gave momentum for the industry to take action. It was an effective way to send a signal to industry about the community’s expectations.
“Paint collection programs had been operated by some councils and state governments, so it was pretty piecemeal prior to the scheme. The only way to progress is through a national scheme so that you can get scale and consistency.”
With the product stewardship listing, an Implementation Working Group was established with input from the industry in late 2013. The Council of Australian Governments appointed statutory authority Sustainability Victoria, to work on the design of the scheme. The APMF with Sustainability Victoria also ran a six-month trial in 2013, which collected 127 tonnes of unwanted paint from the trade painting community.
Five of the major companies agreed to join the scheme and fund it through a 15c-a-litre levy on eligible consumer and trade purchases.
Karen’s first task was to secure authorisation from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). State governments also followed and within 18 months harmonised their regulations to allow trade painters to use the scheme nationally.
In order to scale its operations, an independent not-for-profit company was needed to operate the scheme. Once the paint manufacturers had all committed to join the scheme and with ACCC authorisation in place, Paintback Limited was formed in January 2016, with Karen appointed to lead the company.
“There were two people in the organisation at the time, myself and the chairman Jim Liaskos, and we were going to launch on May 2. We had less than five months to pull a contract together, lead a request for a proposal process for a national carrier to collect our waste and treat it, liaise with paint retailers and design our marketing strategy,” Karen says.
She says achieving the setup in a miniscule four months was aided by the paint manufacturers and her initial team.
As part of the setup, Karen and her colleagues began work on establishing collection sites across Australia. Collection sites are run by a mix of local government, commercial and social enterprises and are continually being expanded. Paintback supplies stillages to participating sites in order to provide residents and trade painters with disposal options.
Do-it-yourself and trade painters can take their unwanted paint and packaging to a Paintback site where the paint waste and packaging is stored at the collection point ready for Paintback to pick it up. From there, it is transported for treatment via external collection.
The packaging and waste liquid are then separated and the paint is distributed onto suppliers, who use the solvent paint as a replacement for fossil fuel in cement production. The steel and plastic packaging is also recycled into new products.
The program comprises three stages to establish its national footprint, with Stage 1 completed in July 2017, Stage 2 underway and Stage 3 expected to commence next financial year. The scheme covers a range of consumer paint products, with industrial paints currently not accepted.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Paintback is investing in research and development to focus on capturing valuable resources from the paint waste streams. Karen says in the future Paintback may also look at expanding the scheme to other coatings.
Paintback now averages five site openings each month, with more than 70 collections to date in locations across Australia. Part of its success has been a significant advertising campaign with billboards, radio advertisements and social media encouraging consumers to responsibly dispose of their waste.
By the end of 2017, more than 70 per cent of participating paint sold in Australia will display the Paintback logo.
Karen says this will help consumers know they are purchasing responsible paint brands.
She says the challenge is getting a greater presence in states such as South Australia and New South Wales. She says Sydney is difficult due to its limited supply of available waste facilities at this stage, which reduces the options for Paintback collection sites.
But with ambitious goals ahead, Paintback’s next target is to divert 45 million kg of waste paint and packaging by 2022.
“The biggest issue we get is when people don’t have a site near them – we’re always challenged by that,” Karen says.
“It’s a good challenge to have when people are asking for more. But we’re cognisant that we have to provide a convenient service, because unless it’s convenient, people aren’t going to use it. That’s the reality of recycling.”