The current state of the adhesives industry has transformed over the past few years, with many asking, “Will it ever slow down?” Between the rising global costs of raw materials and energy, and the enforcement of stricter environmental and industry regulations, the adhesives market is adjusting to a lot of change in what many are calling a “sticky situation.” Chemical companies have taken this time to create new approaches that will ensure the health and safety of employees throughout the supply chain while offering chemistries that will provide customers with higher performance products that can result in savings and performance benefits in a variety of ways.

Current polyethylene prices in the U.S. remain among the lowest in the world, making the North American plastics industry highly competitive. As a result of the polyethylene feedstock in North America, many chemical companies are taking advantage of this opportunity, choosing to invest in new facilities. According to a September 26, 2013, Plastics News report, “Polyethylene prices jump up 5 cents.” These new investments could bring in as much as an estimated 30% increase in the region’s polyethylene capacity and deliver new output to global markets. The value in this is that the increase in polyethylene, as well as downstream capacity in film production, will continue to support the growth of the flexible packaging market’s globally increasing demand for adhesives and sealants of all types.

In addition, chemical companies around the world have begun to reevaluate their product portfolios in order to meet the regulations developed by organizations such as the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the European Union (EU). These governmental entities are advocating for products that contain little to no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in order to protect facility employees and end users. Raw materials suppliers are evolving to align with the regulations and are creating chemistries that are safe without compromising performance.

For example, it has become increasingly important to develop solutions that have low or ultra-low amounts of formaldehyde. These types of products are particularly valuable in creating products for environments such as hospitals, schools, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified buildings and manufacturing facilities, which are typically formaldehyde sensitive. As a result, chemical companies are seeking new ways to offer low or ultra-low formaldehyde technologies that still extend the benefits of traditional formaldehyde solutions: wet strength, rapid fluid penetration, and customizable degrees of softness and stiffness.

Another benefit of using chemistries that have low VOC levels is worker safety. Some studies show that exposure to the compounds can have short- and long-term effects. Examples include eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, and allergic skin reaction. These symptoms are based on the level of exposure, and organizations like OSHA are encouraging the development of solutions that are mutually beneficial for customers and workers. As a result, manufacturers have noticed that, now more than ever, raw materials suppliers are offering low- or ultra-low-VOC alternatives that create safer work environments and give off minimal gas emissions. Adhesive consumers can also make large improvements in VOC reduction by shifting their adhesive products to solventless or water-based solutions.

Fortunately, these changes can also create opportunities for adhesive consumers to upgrade the technologies that they use in their products. Formulations that offer faster curing while reducing VOC emissions are available, creating a “double win” for companies by reducing working capital as well as VOC emissions.

Although there have been big changes over the past few years for the adhesive industry, many industry professionals consider the shift to be a welcome challenge—not a sticky situation. This is an exciting time for R&D team members to work closely with the value chain to develop technologies that adapt to the regulatory environment, cultivate a high level of performance, and create cost-effective and dependable solutions for customers.