Here’s why you should recycle that leftover paint

December 16, 2011

Whether it’s a new house or a remodeling project, some residue of the job will remain long after the contractor has departed and the dumpster is history. Five to 10 half-empty cans of latex paint will be stacked in a corner of the garage, left by the painters in case the owners need to touch up.

Even households that have merely repainted one or two rooms will have some paint cans in their garage.

In fact, the number of paint cans stashed away in garages and basements and apartment storage lockers across the United States probably runs to the hundreds of millions, and grows bigger by the year. In 2010, about 100 million more cans were added to this pile of leftover paint, estimated Scott Cassel of the Product Stewardship Institute. The Envirionmental Protection Agency estimates that about 10 percent of the exterior and interior, water-based latex paint sold for residential use each year is leftover. In 2010, this amounted to about 65 million gallons.

Homeowners almost never use this leftover paint for touch-ups. Instead, they eventually toss it, either as liquid or, following the directive of their local solid waste department, let it dry out first. Either way adds to the burden of the local landfill. A more sensible alternative is to recycle all this paint.

But who will pay for it — the users, the producers or the cash-strapped local municipality? And would a recycled paint be usable?

From 2002 to 2010, these questions were debated in meetings and conference calls organized by the Product Stewardship Institute, a Boston-based organization that focuses on reducing the environmental impact of consumer products by forging cooperative agreements between manufacturers, retailers, trade associations and government officials. After more than 60 meetings and conference calls, the paint group eventually devised a self-financed program for recycling its paint.

The first stumbling block was the viability of a recycled paint product. Despite the skepticism of paint manufacturers, successful recycling paint programs in Oregon, California, Oklahoma and Minnesota have demonstrated that when many brands of water-based latex paint are mixed under tightly controlled circumstances, the resulting mid-grade paint is virtually indistinguishable from “virgin paint.” The only thing that a consumer might notice is the limited number of colors.

How does the recycling process work? Jim Quinn, manager of MetroPaint in Portland, Ore., and John Segala, president of Amazon Paint in Fridley, Minn., both firms that have been recycling paint for nearly 20 years, described the operation. When the paint is delivered to their plants — on average about 2,500 cans a day — a crew of eight or nine people checks each can, setting aside the 15 percent whose contents are curdled, moldy, rusty, dirty or otherwise unusable. The remaining paint is sorted by color, then mixed and filtered, and a biocide is added to prevent spoilage.

Amazon offers 12 colors of Metro Paint 18. Both firms carefully maintain color consistency from batch to batch. When asked why there are so few colors, both Quinn and Segala said their offerings reflect the colors in their feedstock. While major paint manufacturers offer literally thousands of different tints (Benjamin Moore, for example offers 3,330), most people stick to the same few colors and the most popular color, by far, both men said, is off-white.

How good is the paint? Both men described their products as a “mid-grade” paint, that has generally sold well in their markets. Both products have been certified by Green Seal.

Wanting to test the product myself, I asked Segala to send a sample, and Al Beaudry, a southeast Michigan painter for more than 30 years, tried it out on the walls and ceiling of an obliging client who is remodeling his offices in Ann Arbor. Beaudry’s assessment: thumbs up. He noted that the Amazon product is thick, covers well and handles similarly to the paints he regularly uses that cost three to five times as much (Amazon’s price is $13 to $15 a gallon; MetroPaint’s is $9 to $10). Beaudry said he also was impressed that he could get a scrubbable, washable flat latex paint for this price and noted that Amazon’s limited palette was “in the ballpark” of what his clients usually request.

What’s the downside?

The recycled latex paint is not a low-VOC product, which many consumers prefer. VOC refers to the volatile organic chemicals used to manufacture the paint. Most VOCs are released into the air as the paint dries, but a very small residual amount in the dried paint film may continue to off-gas for several weeks. The VOCs can be an irritant to sensitive individuals and have raised health concerns.

What’s the upside? When the overall environmental impact of virgin and recycled paint is compared, the recycled product is the clear winner. No raw materials were procured, and no energy was expended to create the finished product.

Who will pay for the recycling? In the past, recycled paint programs, including Amazon’s and Metro’s paint, were subsidized by state and local governments. Because of the high cost involved, only a dozen programs have been established.

In the new program devised by the paint manufacturers, users will now pay for the recycling through a surcharge added to the price of each can of paint. For a gallon size, the charge is 75 cents.

The program is being rolled out on a state-by-state basis. The first one, now up and running, was Oregon’s (it is now funding MetroPaint). California’s program will begin next year and Connecticut’s in 2013.

In the meantime, where can you purchase recycled paint? MetroPaint is sold throughout the Pacific Northwest. Amazon is sold in California, Oklahoma and Minnesota and to stores throughout the United States that specialize in green building products.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Michigan. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her by e-mail at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or at katherinesalant.com.

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