Every year in the United States, homeowners throw out 64 million gallons (242 million liters) of unused interior and exterior paint [source: United States Environmental Protection Agency]. That's enough paint to paint 3,878,788 miles (6,242,304 kilometers) of highway stripes. To put that into perspective, it's enough paint to paint 16 solid highway stripes from the Earth to the moon [source: DownEast.com, NASA]. It's also enough to fill 128 Olympic swimming pools [source: U.S. Department of the Interior]. Every year.
Does all of this waste pose a hazard to the environment? Is there a way to dispose of old paint that doesn't involve throwing it out? And if it can't be used, what are the safe, responsible ways to get rid of it? We'll answer these and other questions on the following pages.
Before you can decide how to dispose of old paint, you'll need to determine what kind of paint it is. There are basically two types of paint: oil-based and latex. They have different ingredients and must be handled differently while painting and when you're done. Head to the next page to see what to do with each.
Is old paint hazardous?
Oil-based paints are considered Hazardous Household Waste (HHW) and are not suitable for reuse after long storage. The label of an oil-based paint will say "oil-based" or "alkyd," or it will instruct you to clean brushes with mineral spirits or turpentine. Paints of this type are flammable, toxic and contain harmful solvents, resins and pigments; very old oil-based paints (1978 and before) may also contain lead [source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]. For these reasons, oil-based paints must be taken to disposal facilities that accept HHW. Many communities work to simplify this by holding annual or semi-annual HHW collection days.
Latex or water-based paint, on the other hand, is not a hazardous waste, and can enjoy many reincarnations after its initial use. Latex paints are those that clean up with soap and water. They're very common for both interior and exterior painting. Before we go into how latex paints can be disposed of, let's talk about what NOT to do.
Before 1990, about 30 percent of latex paints contained mercury and many exterior latex paints still do [source: Office of Compliance Assistance and Pollution Prevention]. For this and other reasons, latex paints must not be disposed of in liquid form. Specifically do not:
- pour latex paint into storm drains, onto the ground, or into creeks, streams or rivers
- put cans of liquid paint out for regular trash pick-up
- try to burn paint
Disposing of paint this way introduces contaminants into the air, soil and ground water that can eventually work their way into the food chain.
Got paint? Keep reading for ideas to teach an old product new tricks.
Reusing Old Paint
If stored properly, paint will last for years. According to the National Paint and Coatings Association, you should:
- Cover the opening of the paint can with plastic wrap.
- Put the lid on securely and make sure it doesn't leak.
- Turn the can upside down to allow the paint to create its own seal.
- Store the can upside down in a place that's safe from freezing and out of reach of children and pets.
So, before you throw out that old paint, see if you can use it for another project around the house. This might include making touch-ups to finished paint jobs. But you can reach farther than that with a little imagination. Create a flow in your home by carrying the color of one room into the next with painted accessories. Items like picture frames, outlet covers, or clay planters are ideal for tying rooms together through color. You can give an old piece of furniture a fresh look, or even use old paint as primer for a new painted project.
If you can't think of any use for your left-over paint, see if someone else can.
"Individuals with old paint should contact their local Keep America Beautiful affiliate to find out if they would take paint donations for graffiti cleanups, or contact their local chapter of Habitat for Humanity," advises environmental educator Denise Carleton of Reaping Nature Productions.
Plenty of other local organizations would be happy to accept your left-over paint. Art teachers, summer camps, and non-profit organizations such as Boy Scouts, 4-H and the Salvation Army can use a potpourri of paint colors for murals, activities, service projects and to spruce up donated items. High school or community theatre groups can use it for stage sets. Just make sure they know to limit the use of exterior paints to well-ventilated outdoor projects. You can also check with local government departments such as parks, buildings and maintenance, fire departments, military bases or prisons to see if they're interested in free paint.
Recycling your old paint might be another option. Through partnership with the Product Stewardship Institute, some states have recently passed or are considering legislation to require paint manufacturers to collect left-over residential paint for post-consumer use. Even if this program hasn't reached your state, you can ask your local paint dealer to help you repurpose your excess paint. Start by filtering out solids like thickened paint and brush bristles. Then separate the cans into light colors and dark colors. With the help of your paint professional, light colored paints can be combined and re-tinted to a fresh, new color. Dark paints blend into a brown color. Empty paint cans are recyclable, too, just like food and drink cans.
If all else fails and you must dispose of your old latex paint, turn it into solid waste. If there's less than one-fourth of the paint in the can, take it outside, place it where kids and pets can't get to it, remove the lid and let the paint air dry. When the paint is hard, you can put the cans out with the rest of your trash. You may need to leave the lids off to show your trash collector that the can is safe for collection.
For larger quantities of paint, brush or roll the paint onto layers of newspaper or cardboard. When the paint dries, put the paper in the trash bin. Alternatively, you can pour the paint into a cardboard box and mix it with shredded newspaper, cat litter, or a commercial paint hardener to speed solidification. The box can go in the trash when the paint dries and the cans can be recycled.
Want more tips for making the most of your resources? See the great links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Carleton, Denise. Environmental educator and co-owner of Reaping Nature Productions. Interview, 06/02/2009.
- Consumer Product Safety Commission. "What You Should Know About Lead Based Paint in Your Home: Safety Alert." CPSC Document #5054. (Accessed 05/28/2009). http://www.cpsc.gov/CPSCPUB/PUBS/5054.html
- DownEast.com. "White Line Fever." May 1997. (Accessed 05/28/2009). http://www.downeast.com/node/10512
- Earth911. "How to Properly Dispose of Hazardous Products." (Accessed 06/02/2009). http://earth911.com/hazardous/how-to-properly-dispose-of-hazardous-products/
- Joseph, Ron. "Paint Density of Household Latex Paint." Paints and Coatings Resource Center. Ask the Expert Question-and-Answer Archive. September 2006. (Accessed 05/28/2009). http://www.paintcenter.org/rj/sep06d.cfm
- Montgomery County Division of Solid Waste Services. "How to Recycle/Dispose of Paint -- Oil-based." Department of Environmental Protection. Montgomery County, MD. Updated July 23, 2008. (Accessed 06/02/2009). http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/apps/dep/solidwaste/collectionservices/material_detail.asp?categoryID=25
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "Earth's Moon." Solar System Exploration. Updated February 11, 2008. (Accessed 05/28/2009). http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Object=Moon
- National Paint and Coatings Association. "Post-Consumer Paint Management." National Paint and Coatings Association, 2009. (Accessed 05/25/2009). http://www.paint.org/issues/post_consumer.cfm
- National Paint and Coatings Association. "Protocol for Management of Post-Consumer Paint." National Paint and Coatings Association, 2008. (Accessed 05/25/2009). http://www.paint.org/pubs/protocol.pdf
- Office of Compliance Assistance and Pollution Prevention. "Storing and Disposing of Paint from Your Home." Ohio EPA. September 2007. (Accessed 05/28/2009). http://www.epa.state.oh.us/ocapp/p2/pdf/HC6web.pdf
- Paints and Coatings Resource Center. "Pollution Prevention." National Center for Manufacturing Sciences. (Accessed 05/25/2009). http://www.paintcenter.org/paint.cfm
- Product Stewardship Institute. "PSI Paint Project -- National Dialogue." Product Stewardship Institute, Inc., 2009. (Accessed 05/25/2009). http://www.productstewardship.us/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=117
- U.S. Department of the Interior. "Catching a Wave: Jet Flow Gate Testing Brings a Crowd." Bureau of Reclamation. Lower Colorado Region. Last Reviewed September 8, 2004. (Accessed 05/28/2009). http://www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam/History/essays/jetflow.html
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. "Lead-Based Paint." Toxic Substances Control Act. Updated August 20, 2008. (Accessed 05/28/2009). http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/lsca.html
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. "Other Products." Wastes -- Partnerships -- Product Stewardship. Updated September 25, 2008. (Accessed 05/25/2009). http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/partnerships/stewardship/products/other.htm
- United States of America Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Healthy Indoor Painting Practices." United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. (Accessed 05/25/2009). http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/456.pdf