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Resene believes it has identified the secret ingredient that will allow it to produce the world's first sustainable paint.

In August the paint-maker was the inaugural winner of What's Your Problem New Zealand?, a competition set up by the Crown research institute Industrial Research.

The prize was $1 million of research, and Resene has wasted no time in getting its project under way to develop a waterborne paint that is based on resins made up of 80 per cent sustainable ingredients.

Waterborne paints at present use acrylic as a resin, and existing environmentally friendly alternatives contain only 30 to 40 per cent sustainables.

The key is to find a substitute that will allow it to make a paint based on resins made of 80 per cent renewables.

The company will only say that the ingredient will be non-cropping (it won't compete with food crops for space) and is likely to come from existing industrial waste streams.

After four months Resene R&D team leader Mark Glenny said they had a pretty good lead on what that ingredient will be.

But it is so top-secret that not even the senior management team of Resene has seen the full details of the project.

Technical manager Danusia Wypych said as far as Resene was aware no one else in the world had achieved a truly sustainable paint yet.

"We know other people are sniffing around the area, and some quite big players. They're not doing exactly what we're doing and we think we have a better pathway."

A team of four scientists at Industrial Research's Lower Hutt site was working on the project full-time and it was on track to producing early commercial products within 18 months, she said.

The competition win was significant for Resene, which did not have the specialist people or the facilities to do the work on its own.

There were critical stages in the chemistry of the project, she said.

"For Industrial Research it's part of what excited them about the project, that it took them one step beyond what they normally do."

Glenny said there was quite a jump between where current paint technology knowledge ended and where Resene needed to be.

"There's a risk that even this team who are experts in manipulating this chemistry might not be able to jump that gap."

Although there was a great emphasis on renewables here in New Zealand, overseas the paint was likely to be a niche product, the team said. But with around nine billion litres of interior paint sold worldwide each year, even 5 per cent of the market would be a significant volume.

The sustainable paints currently available were about twice the price of ordinary paint, and the Resene project was aiming to sell its new product at about 80 per cent of that price point - and offer a better product.