Recycling Mysteries: Paint

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Most people already know that household paint is recyclable. But it’s also important to understand that different household paints are disposed of in very different ways.

What we do with our leftover paint determines if it goes on to have a second life. In fact, the EPA estimates that Americans discard as much as 69 million gallons of paint each year. That’s millions of gallons of unrecycled paint headed straight for the nation’s landfills. Fortunately, many cities and communities organize household hazardous waste management programs through which residents can recycle leftover paint and paint cans.

How Paint Is Recycled

Most latex paint that doesn’t contain mercury or foreign contaminants can be processed into recycled-content paint.

There are two types of recycled paint: re-blended (also called consolidated paint) and re-processed (also called re-manufactured paint). Re-blended paint contains a much higher percentage of recycled paint than re-processed paint.

Creating re-blended paint involves mixing several paints together, including various colors and sheens (glossy, eggshell, etc.). The paint is then filtered, packaged and distributed or sold.

Re-processed paint results from mixing old paint with new paint and other new materials. The paint is then tested for quality, packaged and distributed or sold. Theresa Foster, the environmental programs coordinator for the City of Phoenix, Ariz., explains the paint recycling process.

“When we [the City’s recycling centers] accept the paint, we separate it out by color, so then it will get mixed that way,” Foster says.

This means re-processed paint can be made into more colors than re-blended paint, which is usually offered in just neutral colors. By repurposing paint in this way, we reduce the demands on the planet’s natural resources, as well as create markets for leftover paint in cities where people would like to purchase and use recycled paint. However, oil-based paints are a trickier business, since they cannot be recycled.

“Oil-based paints are incinerated,” says Foster. “Spray paints, too. Even the metal [containers] get incinerated.”

So What Should I Do With My Paint?

When purchasing paint for a project, try to determine how much paint you will need so that you end up with as little excess paint as possible. Then, make every effort to use leftover paint. Give it to a friend or use it for an art or crafts project. Consider donating the paint to local organizations, such as charities, churches, high school drama departments or Girl Scouts of America or Boy Scouts of America troops.

To recycle your paint, separate it into two groups: latex paint and oil-based paint. Never mix the two kinds together because they have to be recycled separately. Also, if possible, the paints should be in their original containers, or at least clearly labeled for identification.

For latex paint, remove the lid from the can and allow the paint to dry out and harden completely. Push a screw driver into the paint to test whether any of it is still liquid. Once the paint has dried completely, it is ready to be recycled.

In some states, leftover paint that is prepared this way and placed in garbage bins is automatically recycled. In other states, it’s necessary for you to take the paint and containers to a recycling facility. Contact your local household hazardous waste (HHW) representative to learn the regulations in your state.

Oil-based paints are hazardous and should always be taken to your local HHW collection center so they can be disposed of safely. And even though the majority of latex paints are not considered to be hazardous, there are a few exceptions.

“Some paints have chemicals with mildew protection, and those are hazardous because they include pesticides,” says Foster.

Paints labeled as “wood preservative” and paints containing mercury (may apply to any paint manufactured before 1991) are also hazardous. Foster recommends taking latex paints that fall into this category to your local HHW collection center along with your oil-based paints.

Some communities have specific paint recycling programs that will accept both latex and oil-based paints at collection sites. To find your local paint recycling program, use Earth911’s recycling search or check with your city’s public works department.

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