Earlier this week I posed a question on Instagram. I asked, what does the spray can of the future look like? This is really a question born from last weeks discussion about how we can collectively advocate for pushing the tools, technology and practises into a more environmentally sound place? Obviously, the topic of spray paint and the various accessories (which are mostly plastic) impact the environment in both their composition and disposal. When I posed this most recent question I was over at my friend @18ism place where he had brought out his vintage spray can collection that he was considering selling online. We were inspecting the various brands from an era spanning back to the 1950’s and really inspecting the materiality. It was interesting to see how the steel and paper labels have eroded or started breaking down but the plastics like the lids and caps were often times like brand new. As a product, spray paint has evolved a lot since it’s inception in the late 1940’s - the led is gone, CFC’s have been banned since the late 90’s and manufacturers have done a lot to eliminate most of the worst solvent byproducts like Xylene. Essentially though the basic concept has stayed the same and I wondered if it’s time to rethink this product versus suggesting alternatives like I did in my last big post.
I love spray paint, it’s my primary tool for making art and the one I feel the most comfortable with. There are certain tasks that it will always prove superior - its easy application to almost any surface, quick dry time and ergonomics are just a few ways I can list. I think these reasons alone will make the shift to a completely different tool a very hard sell. The resounding suggestion in all of these recent discussions has been regarding a reusable spray can and there are actually many out there. I was scouring youtube for examples of people testing exisiting products, attempting to make their own custom refillable cans and corporate videos of people pioneering more comprehensive systems that include an automated refilling machine, a safety valve that releases excess air once it hits over 115psi and the can is made with durable aluminium. Looking at the can it’s clear that it’s not designed with our type of art in mind, the ergonomics and nozzle system are completely wrong but I see something in it. As per usual when it comes to innovation it’s a matter of merging two or more existing things to create a new solution. Interestingly they make a startling claim at the start of the linked video that around 10.5 billion aerosol cans (not just paint products) are sold annually and that around 28 million become trash each day - which is staggering. I had a search around online to verify this and found various articles like this one that state that the global volume sale of aerosol cans was more like 17.1 Billion units in 2016 and estimated to reach 20.54 Billion units by 2022.
There’s more than one major issue with trying to convince everyone to switch to making, distributing and using refillable cans. Achieving this would require a major paradigm shift dependent on all the aforementioned stakeholders in this scenario’s investment. Surprisingly though, It didn’t take too long for @18ism and I to dream up at least one solution that didn’t render at least one party in that chain obsolete (except maybe those selling aerosol paints online).
Back in New Zealand and Australia (and I’m sure in many other places) we have swapper crates of beer. In European countries like Germany they have a similar system for distributing mineral water to peoples houses weekly. There are a finite number of glass bottles in circulation that after purchase full of whichever beverage are taken away and consumed. They are then either collected and swapped or taken to the store and exchanged for full ones. In the instance of the beer, the bottles are cleaned, refilled and stored in the chiller at the store until a person comes to swap their next crate. The customer pays a higher price for the initial purchase because it covers the cost of the bottles but then from there they are paying a subsidised price that essentially just covers the cost of the refilled product. The retailer doesn’t just refill the bottles with any old beer - they are sold the beer at volume from the producer and they only put their product in the appropriately branded vessel. Do you see where I’m going with this? Paint producers should continue to produce their own paints with their own specific recipe and colour range. They should invest in developing their reusable spray can systems similar to the one in the video but that merges both the ergonomics and usability of their current cans and also has an accompanying automatic refilling machine. The customer for those machines may be the very rare artist that can afford one but would mostly be the retailers. The retailers would order the paint range in large volume and would offer the refilling service to the customer. The customer would pay a higher price they first time around but would pay a heavily discounted price when returning used cans. The retail staff would then clean, refill and restock the range so it’s still available with the same convenience as buying a regular can now. For the online distributers I’m certain some variation of this model could also work but it does favour a system by where the retailers become more like traditional paint shops and only make exactly what people need.
It may take a little time to revise this concept into something that works fluidly and that everyone can embrace but it’s literally just a merging of a few ideas and technologies that already exist. I’m looking forward to hearing people weigh in on this, especially those making and distributing paint currently.