Scientists and NGOs have been raising concerns since the 1980s over the presence of bisphenol A (BPA) in food and drink containers. The industrial chemical, used to make polycarbonate plastic bottles and food storage containers, along with the epoxy resin linings in canned goods, has been associated with endocrine disorders. Regulators have responded over the past decade: The FDA banned the compound from baby bottles and children’s drinking cups in 2012, and by 2018, 90% of steel food cans were being manufactured without it.
But the beverage industry has struggled to get the chemical out of aluminum cans, stymied by the difficulty of finding an alternative coating that stops the corrosion of both steel and aluminum effectively. (Due to manufacturing requirements, the can industry needs a compound that works for both.) Meanwhile, demand for metal cans is rising as consumers look to decrease their environmental impact by avoiding plastic. Metal food packaging can be recycled an infinite number of times.
Driven by demand from food corporations and customers, coating-solutions company Valspar—part of manufacturing giant Sherwin-Williams since 2017—has spent 10 years developing a new epoxy from scratch, called valPure V70, which staves off corrosion without affecting endocrine activity. In perhaps a first for the industrial coating industry, the company worked proactively with leading NGOs, scientists, and consumer health and safety groups—including the Natural Resources Defense Council; the Center for Science in the Public Interest; and Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families—to ensure that the coating satisfied their safety requirements. “Valspar went to incredible lengths to show that their compound was not estrogenic,” says Terrence Collins, chemistry director of the Institute for Green Science at Carnegie Mellon University, which was involved in testing valPure V70. But he sounds a note of caution. To know whether it’s safe beyond that, “we will need to see how it performs” on further testing.
The beverage industry, however, has wasted no time in embracing valPure V70. Though it can’t contractually divulge which food and beverage brands it works with, Sherwin-Williams says that billions of cans coated with valPure V70 are already on the market, especially in California (where cans that contain BPA liners must carry a health warning). The rollout is proof that even the most stalwart industries can benefit from embracing consumer feedback.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.