Recycling Mystery: Latex Paint

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About 90 percent of paint sold in the U.S. is latex-water-based paint. (Stock Photo)

Patti Toews knows a thing or two about paint. As Program Director for San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority, she is at the forefront of an innovative latex paint take-back program that exists only in her county.

“Latex paint is a very special waste,” she says. “It’s challenging.” On one hand people can’t just throw it away or pour it down the drain, but on the other hand, it’s considered hazardous waste only in California. No other state mandates that latex, or water-based, paint be disposed of in any specific manner.

Since 2009, residents of San Luis Obispo County can take their leftover latex paint back to any retailer that sells it for free disposal. There are three situations where retailers must take back the paint: when the customer has a receipt, there’s an even swap (for example, someone brings 500 gallons to Home Depot, they must take it if that person is buying 500 gallons from them) or a customer brings up to two fluid gallons per week.

“You can imagine the frustration on the retailers’ end,” Toews says. “Especially if they have to take back paint that they didn’t even sell, but it mostly doesn’t happen that way.”

Why latex paint is hard to recycle

Toews says that according to their research latex paint has a remarkable, almost uncanny, way of returning to the very retail store it came from. San Luis Obispo County has other take-back programs for everything from rechargeable batteries to books, but Toews says that no other material is returned in quite the same way as latex paint.

“The convenience factor is hugely beneficial,” she says. “People tend to consolidate their trips and gravitate toward where they first bought paint.”

But San Luis Obispo is unique, and many people don’t know exactly what to do with their latex paint.

The messaging can be confusing; it’s not hazardous, but you can’t just throw it away. You can dry it out to throw it away, but it has to be completely dried out, and don’t leave an open can around children or animals because that could be dangerous.

What should I do with latex paint?

David Ramirez, Household Hazardous Waste Technician for Gilbert, Ariz., says the best thing to do is bring the paint into an HHW facility or to an event. “We want to get it in the doors so we can determine if it’s usable or not and take away all those other dangers.”

The Gilbert facility recycles latex paint once it’s been determined that it can be reused. “We have three 55-gallon drums,” Ramirez says. “Two we use for all shades of brown, and the last one is for anything that isn’t brown, which usually makes gray.”

They pour the paint through screens into the correct drums and once the drum is full, the paint is pared down into five-gallon buckets that residents, organizations or the city can take for reuse. They even scrap extra paint out of the original paint cans so they can be recycled as scrap metal.

Ramirez says many HHW facilities don’t recycle paint in this way. In fact, some of them simply landfill the paint, but he still suggests taking leftover water-based paint to them anyway. “Even if they don’t recycle, it will be properly packaged and disposed of,” he says.

Can you throw latex paint in the trash?

Latex paint can be thrown in the trash only if it is completely solid. You can do this by leaving the lid off the can for a few days, or use an absorbent material like cat litter to solidify the paint.

But, really, the best thing to do with any paint is to buy the right amount in the first place and just use it up.

“That way you don’t even have to worry about disposal,” Toews says. “There are always a million projects to do. Be creative and find different ways to use it.”

She suggests donating it to charity organizations, schools or artists. If you want to keep leftover paint, “once a year, look for touch-ups around the house or other things you can paint,” Toews says. That way you eventually use it all and only have to worry about recycling the container.

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