Paint from coal mine waste

27 April 2021 | Social Ventures

Paint tube

Few people would have seen exciting potential in waste residue from polluted mine water. But UCL artist and academic Onya McCausland was inspired to develop a unique and innovative range of paints. With the support of UCLB’s social ventures offer, she created an art work and social enterprise that is helping to connect former mining villages with their heritage.

Onya’s interest was sparked through visiting former mine sites whilst studying for a PhD at UCL’s Slade School of Fine Art. She discovered that polluted water from decommissioned coal mines, when treated, leaves behind an iron-rich sludge which can be turned into ochre pigment.

“As an artist, I’m interested in the relationships between materials, people and places. I started looking at the leftovers of industrial pollution that communities were having to deal with. I wanted to activate the materials as a tool for raising awareness and talking about the connections between communities, landscape and waste recycling.”

Bringing her vision to life has meant overcoming multiple hurdles, from the technical challenges of making a world-first paint, to putting in place a business model that can deliver real social impact.

From waste product to ground-breaking paint

The UK Coal Authority’s water treatment schemes at former mine sites across the country prevent iron solids from polluting local water. The process leaves behind iron solids that would stain riverbeds orange if left untreated. Onya collected samples of this iron-rich ochre from coalfield locations in South Wales, Scotland, Lancashire and Yorkshire, which she brought back to a UCL laboratory and her studio.

Working with an inter-disciplinary team that included scientists from UCL, the Coal Authority, and paint manufacturers, the ochre was refined, milled and burnt, and then tested to examine its potential as pigment colour.

Using ochre by-product from the Six Bells site in Wales, Onya created the first ever mineral-based exterior grade wall emulsion, as well as working in collaboration with Michael Harding to produce a limited-edition range of artists’ oil paints.

Onya says, “I wanted the paint to carry the colour without compromise and show the intensity and strength of the pigment. I discovered ways to adapt a traditional paint binding system based on potassium silicate minerals to make an environmentally responsible paint that would not compromise the beauty of the colour. The formula has never been combined with recycled mine waste pigments before, making Six Bells Red the first paint of its kind.”

The power of partnerships

Partnerships have been crucial to the project’s success, which has involved working with some very different stakeholders, from national organisations like the Coal Authority, to commercial companies, local councils, charities and beneficiaries. From the early stages, UCLB were able to support Onya with scoping out possible models and brokering the collaborations needed to produce and commercialise the paints, secure funding, and build sustainable relationships with local communities.

Ana Lemmo Charnalia is a senior business manager at UCLB, leading on social ventures. “Understanding what’s important to different partners in a collaboration is crucial, and helping to present the opportunity in a way that aligns to those. UCLB can give that external perspective, and show potential collaborators how projects will help them achieve their own goals.”

For Onya, it was notable that this didn’t divert the original aims of the project.

“Steven Schooling and UCLB supported my ideas and my ideals in every possible way. Having the weight of another institution behind me was very helpful in the early stages with setting up partnerships. As the project progressed, I had the security of knowing that I could access expert advice – whether that was legal advice on trademarking or terms and conditions of sale.”

UCLB helped Onya to set up a community interest company, Turning Landscapes CIC, and secure UCLB Social Ventures proof-of-concept funding to develop the commercial model for its activity. They continue to play an important role advising on opportunities to create a stable financial foundation for the enterprise. As Ana explains, this is the key difference between social ventures and charities.

“Although the aims are social, it’s vital for the business to be financially sustainable in order to make an impact over the long term.”

Celebrating and profiting from industrial heritage

Residents in Six Bells have been very engaged with the project, which has helped to connect people with the cultural, social and industrial history of the village.

Turning Landscapes CIC was incorporated in December 2020 and will invest income from paint sales back into local projects. Long term, the partners hope it will create jobs in the local area. But many social and cultural benefits are already apparent.

Hywel Clatworthy, a volunteer director of Six Bells Regeneration spoke at the product launch event.

“For me, this project is another step on the journey where former mining areas stop burying the past and move onto celebrating, learning and profiting spiritually, mentally and culturally by using what our grandparents left us.”

In the next stage of her journey, Onya will work with four other former mine sites, producing paints unique to each location and collaborating with local communities to explore and connect their unique histories. UCLB will support the project to create an ongoing production line of paint and a sustainable enterprise.

“We’re excited to continue working with Onya and helping her to grow the business,” says Ana. “Through her passion and determination, she’s created something really special, and we want to see it achieve even greater impact in the future.”