Recycling Mysteries: Paint

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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  1. Hi Marie…

    It would be nice to see more efforts to encorage retail hardware, paint and super-store chains to donate their color miss-matched paints to community project/schools/non-profit re-use centers…… Many retail outlets attempt to sell these unclaimed miss-matched gallons of paint at unrealistic price points/margins…at some point this stuff..if unsold ends up—–where????

    Take Care

  2. If you go to an HHW event or facility, ask if there is a swap shop. This service allows you to buy materials that haven’t expired, such as paint and household cleaners, so they won’t need to be disposed of. It’s also a great way to save money on home improvement supplies.

  3. recycling paint is good for the environment and some paint has mercury in it. Why do people put mercury in paint knowing that it is not good for the environment.

  4. Marie,
    I think recyling paints is a good thing. Its better than leaving old paint in your house not to be used.

  5. Marie,
    Recycling paint will save money and using it where ever you can to use it all instead of wasting it is a great way to show you care about recycling household items.

  6. Recycling paint starts with employing sustainable practices from the onset. Recycled content in the manufacture of every water based coating starts with recycling its largest component, Drinking Water!!
    For every gallon of water based paint, we consume a quarter gallon of drinking water or more to make it. Some of the largest Paint manufacturing plants in the world reside in our most populous and water drought states and regions, Go figure, Close to the sale.
    Moving forward, saving over 400,000 gallons of Drinking Water a year just in process enhancements, the next phase; take Green to the next generation of innovation and blend in the color of Blue. Let’s see the response from here. Imagine using the same recycled water that has been used to irrigate edible crops for a decade, to Protect, Beautify and Preserve our Homes and save a few billion gallons globally of our most precious of natural resources, the life sustaining kind.
    At Kelly Moore, the manufacturing process incorporates sustainable practices; 100% of the in-process waste stream is recycled into production.
    Kelly Moore mastered the The recycling of its Non Conforming Mixed Colors through-out their 160 plus retail out-lets; when a client, for what ever reason, wasn’t happy about their color(s), Kelly Moore didn’t simply try and sell it off at discount ( Like the Large Big Box Retailers) in hope that someone would buy it ( this is a sale that promotes additional waste; the color and available quantity being less likely to be totally consumed, it might just be used for a Picture frame or a small accent and eventually end up in a solid waste site)
    Kelly Moore, established a sound business plan, it leveraged sustainable practices: The non-conforming color was returned to the factory on the same truck that delivered it, the paint was recycled back into a batch of specific paint that was determined by its spectral “Finger Print” . The Spectral quality, (the DNA of the Paints color) allowed the use of any non-conforming color made to be recycled into a finished paint with the end product being able to touch-up to the previous batches of that color, without the naked eye detecting any color variation at all.
    This sustainable practice, eliminated the solid waste, the cost of disposal and the eventual improvement of matching batch to batch colors that are the best in the industry.
    Incorporating Recycled water verses “Drinking Water” requires money, dedication and commitment, after all, water’s cheap, commodity prices have allowed high volume manufacturers the ability to let the spigot flow.
    We are the Stewards of our Natural Resources, and we take this role with full accountability. Join me and watch as we roll out the new and brush a little blue on a house nearest you.

    My name is Edward Mugits, An advocate of Common Sense & Sustainable Practices. Visit my site and watch as the life of “Color-2-Colour” paints the Quality of Life and Products as vivid as the colors we see.

  7. In my understanding, dried latex pain is not recyclable, and when dried latex paint is left in a garbage bin is automatically disposed with all the rest of the trash.
    I question this guidance,

  8. I’m looking for getting free paint ( or very low cost) for a halfway house that helps people with troubled lives who are trying to rebuild their lives. I wondered if you knew of any place that would donate the paint as the people living there would do the work. Thank you.

  9. I just want to say that other than taking paint to a recycle center, the hardware store that I work for has a difficult time finding more responsible ways of dealing with it. We do offer it for resale at a very reasonable price and almost all of it quickly leaves the shelf, but as a reader earlier pointed out, this may result in a lot of waste as people may use only a small amount of it and dispose of the rest. However, we have tried numerous times to donate it to various organizations and almost all of them tell us they only accept certain colors (usually white) and only in certain size containers!

  10. Why do companies put mercury in paint or anything else for that matter? For example, that flu shot every one is getting this time of year has mercury in it. The most toxic substance!

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