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.