California laws and other best practices help with eco-friendly painting projects
It’s not unreasonable for a person getting their house painted to want environmentally-friendly paint. But we need to establish some baseline understanding of paint, its impact on the air we breathe, and its health effects:
- Painting projects pose a minimal impact on the overall environment. The amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs; more on that in a moment) emitted during a paint project is almost immeasurable. It isn’t zero, however, and the impact is more acute for people living in the house or space.
- California law and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) already regulate paint manufacturers and the kinds of paints they can sell. For instance, oil-based paints are prohibited in California because they pose more harm than latex paints.
- Solvent-based paints can be harmful to the environment, just as oil-based paints. Thus they’re regulated in most municipalities around the United States.
- Low-VOC and Zero-VOC paints are readily available, work well, and are most of what we use anyway. Some lower-quality paints are less eco-friendly, but the differences are modest.
- The overall carbon footprint of painting projects comes in the form of “secondary outputs,” if you will. Driving back and forth to the hardware store looking at paint samples, the emissions from the trucks that delivered the pigments to paint manufacturers, and other logistical emissions are more measurable and harmful than the paint itself.
Eco-friendly paints have more to do with eco-friendly practices
Don’t waste paint and get only what you need
Waste not want not. Correctly measuring a space and buying only what you need to paint the walls is the best thing you can do to protect the environment. Plus, it’ll save you money. We do this by default since we don’t want to waste paint, resources, or your money either.
Try to recycle the used paint cans
It’s not impossible your local recycling center can dispose of empty paint cans, but it’s unlikely. The paint must be removed from the can, thoroughly washed, and then dropped off. Most people struggle to do that with empty jars of peanut butter, let alone paint. Removing all the paint without letting it get on the ground is incredibly challenging.
However, some county toxic waste and recycling facilities can do it. Call and ask in your local area to find out.
Use best practices to avoid spilling paint
About the worst environmental practices while painting comes from spilling paint. It’s bound to happen from time to time, but you can reduce the chances of it spilling (especially in exterior paint jobs):
- Slow down and work methodically, not hurriedly
- Use reusable tarps, blankets, or sheets under your work area
- Cover the bushes and vegetation while working outdoors above sensitive plants
- Plan around the weather so you can open the windows and help ensure indoor paint dries when it’s not raining outside
Recycle unused paint
Most people will tuck the leftover paint from a house project in a closet, garage, or attic. But most people also do not need to touch-up paint on their walls within the 3-6 months that paint is good for. After six months, the color difference between what’s on your wall and what’s in the can are so different any touch-ups would be noticeable.
Then, after months or years, you clean out the garage and realize you have this unused paint. “Now what?”
No one wants to just throw it in the trash (which is illegal anyway), but most people have no idea how to dispose of it properly. Just that something needs to be done.
The old trick of pouring paint into kitty litter, sawdust, or old newspapers is bad advice. You’re just making paint oatmeal at that point, which still seeps into the ground and water supply (albeit more slowly).
In California, the CalRecycle network can help you dispose of paint properly. If they can’t reuse it or recycle it by donating it to a school or community group, they’ll handle the process of breaking it down and disposing of it.
Clean and recycle the non-paint supplies
Brushers, rollers, sheets, stir sticks, and other non-paint supplies can often be reused. Just try to clean them without spraying a garden hose at them over sensitive areas.
Latex paints, Zero-VOC paint, and more on volatile organic compounds
As the name suggests, volatile organic compounds are volatile, organic, and compounds (no surprises there). It sounds scary with the word “volatile,” but it just means the chemical bonds between the water and other chemicals vaporize off the walls and surfaces as the paint dries.
Most paint today is latex water-based paint, and the water is what helps spread the pigments on the wall. As the water dries, it carries off the VOCs derived in their water molecules, meaning most of what you’re smelling is really mostly water with a little bit of molecular binders attached. This causes “paint smell” and can cause health problems for people with asthma or respiratory issues. Pregnant and nursing women or those with newborns or small pets may also prefer to avoid these entirely with good reason.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but some of the best eco-friendly paints are the highest-quality that appear thick and rich. That’s because you’ll use less of them in less time with fewer coatings. This reduces the time the air is exposed to the inherent VOCs. In many rooms, the paint smell goes away faster than most people’s colognes or perfumes.
What about “eco-friendly paint” and milk paint?
There are eco-friendly paint options billed as natural paints with natural ingredients like linseed oil, chalk, ground insects, and natural pigments derived from minerals. These “green paint” options are non-toxic and do not emit harmful chemicals into the air. They are also biodegradable and can be easily disposed of without harming the environment.
Some natural paints can still give off VOCs, so it’s important to do your research before purchasing them. If you’re unsure, you can ask the manufacturer for a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). Remember that the environmental standards for acquiring these minerals are often shaky at best.
Milk paints are another natural paint option and use a protein called casein to bind the pigments and paint solution. Like many natural paints, milk paint is limiting in color choices and can be cumbersome to mix. Milk paint comes as a powder and requires careful mixing. We don’t use these often because the quality is lacking long-term, resulting in more painting projects in shorter time, negating the benefits. Milk paint must also be used the same day it’s mixed, limiting its reuse options.
Wood preservatives, stains, and furniture solvents pose other risks
The environmental impact of painting wood is a catch-22. Wood coatings help prolong the life of existing decks, furniture, gazebos, and so on. That’s good because it reduces replacement, but frequently, the stains and materials involved have much higher VOCs than paint. So much so most wood stains demand masks and plenty of ventilation with great care in how they’re used.
The same guidelines apply, however:
- Work slowly and methodically
- Avoid spilling
- Store and dispose of the leftovers responsibly, even if this means driving them across town on a Saturday morning to a drop-off site
Get started with the best paint options for your project
We believe the best solution for eco-friendly paint is low-VOC or zero-VOC paint from a reputable manufacturer. It’ll last longer, can be applied more quickly, and gets the job done with the best quality.
We also recognize the hard truth that as much as we want to help the earth, other choices we all make throughout the day — from driving to using an air conditioner — have more environmental impact than a paint job. It’s essential to keep things in context.
However, if you’d like to pursue green and eco-friendly paint options, talk with your project manager or contact us with questions. We’ve followed development in eco-friendly options the last few years and recognize these paints may have some uses in the right environment or around those with health problems.