TBF co-founders David Rowat (left) and Dave Pasin with barrels of their biodegradable and non-carcinogenic solvents | PHOTO © Dominic Schaefer
By Tyler Orton Tue Apr 29, 2014 12:01am PST
The marketplace for environmentally sound products was mostly filled by “a lot of low-hanging fruit” a decade or so ago, John Hibbard recalls.
Items like energy-efficient light bulbs or non-toxic cleaning products were cheap and easy for companies to cash in on. More advanced products – say, green alternatives to hazardous materials – weren’t given much in terms of research and development.
“There was a bit of a boom for a little bit but it’s evened off quite considerably,” said Hibbard, president of the B.C. Environment Industry Association. “The more difficult ones [to develop] are proving to be more of challenge. You really do need to have that demand.” But he noted B.C. business culture has been forward thinking when it comes to making the push toward innovation in more advanced environmental products and services.
Surrey-based TBF Environmental Technologies, for instance, has spent the past year developing and marketing alternatives to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are green and effective.
VOCs – one example is methyl ethyl ketone, a solvent found in paints and coatings – are harmful to the atmosphere, while exposure to them poses substantial health risks including dizziness in the short term and brain damage in the long term.
TBF Environmental CEO David Rowat said the company’s success in developing an effective green alternative to toxic solvents has surprised many people, because it solves a problem that has stumped major chemical companies for 20 years.
“We get asked that question all the time, ‘Why you guys? A couple of guys working underneath the Pattullo Bridge in Surrey.’”
Rowat said while major chemical companies have virtually unlimited financial resources, they’re also very entrenched in their own practices.
“Big companies are basically incapable of doing any real innovation,” he said. “And little companies, that’s what they do best.”
Lysane Lavoie, the Canadian Paint and Coatings Association’s director of regulatory affairs, told Business In Vancouver in an email the paint sector is also being increasingly drawn to bio-based alternatives. “However, bio-based chemical producers still have to compete with larger, well-established suppliers of low-priced petroleum-based chemicals in Canada. Switching to bio-based products involves significant [research and development] efforts.”
But Rowat said that, unlike TBF Environmental’s products, bio-based substitutes aren’t effective solvent alternatives. “They’re environmentally friendly, but they don’t work very well. That’s also true on an industrial scale. The ones that work, pollute. And the ones that don’t pollute, don’t work.” While both standard solvents and bio-based substitutes are composed of different blends of materials, TBF Environmental’s alternatives were developed from the bottom up. The company looked at the different parameters needed for solvents to work while being biodegradable and non-carcinogenic, and then tweaked them over two and a half years to get them perfect.
But for TBF Environmental’s products to be effective and clean, there is added cost involved.
That’s why the success of companies investing in advanced green products depends on the demand built up in certain markets, according to Hibbard.
He said it would make the most sense for a business to launch green products or services in either Metro Vancouver or Victoria to see if it could be viable elsewhere in Canada.
“There’s not that same push [in Alberta],” Hibbard said. “There’s not that same community that’s willing to make the hard decisions to say, ‘I’m going to spend more money on this because I know it’s the right thing.’