Consumer paint comes in several forms: latex (or water-based), acrylic (water- and chemical-based), and alkyd (or oil-based). It’s important to know which type you have because the disposal options are different for each.
The easiest way to avoid contributing to paint waste and pollution is to plan your project and purchase only what you’ll need. If you want to keep some touch-up paint for later, seal unused paint carefully and store it in cool, dry location to avoid having rust form on and inside the lid. PaintCare.org offers a video series about how to store paint properly, if you need tips.
Paint Recycling Preparation
- The first step toward successful paint recycling is proper storage. If you have an open can of paint, make sure to keep it covered so the paint doesn’t dry up. You can also wrap the lid in plastic to provide an additional seal. Store it in a cool, dry place between uses.
- If you have no more use for half-empty paint cans, see if you can donate them first. For example, many school drama clubs, community theaters, and housing nonprofits will accept used paint.
- If your paint came in an aerosol can (regardless of type), visit our aerosol cans recycling guide for disposal tips.
- If reuse is not an option, then it’s time to find a recycler or to dispose of it responsibly. Here’s where the story differs based on the type of paint you have:
- Oil-based paint is not easily recycled and will typically be accepted by a household hazardous waste (HHW) program or any Paintcare-affiliated retailer. If your community doesn’t offer HHW collection, you’ll want to dry out the paint using kitty litter and/or newspaper and throw it in the trash.
- Acrylic paints, which are fast-drying and generally safe, do not need to be sent to an HHW location. If you do not have local recycling options, dry the paint, adding kitty litter or another absorbent, before taking the landfill.
- For water-based paint, recycling may be an option where you live by taking it to a transfer station. In many cities, latex paint is excluded from HHW collection and special collection events or programs are available. If you must send used latex paint to the dump, dry it first by mixing kitty litter into the paint and allowing it to stand for several days.
Why Recycle Paint
- Water-based paint is the most commonly accepted product at household hazardous waste events nationwide, even though the EPA doesn’t consider it to be hazardous waste. Most hazardous waste is incinerated instead of recycled.
- New water-based paint can be made from recycled paint, or mixed together to create new colors used for projects like graffiti removal.
- Using 1 gallon of recycled paint instead of new paint saves 100 kilowatt-hours of energy and keeps 115 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the air.
Frequent Paint Recycling Questions
Can I recycle paint cans in my curbside recycling program?
Many larger cities will accept empty paint cans for recycling because they are made of steel, but you’ll have to remove the lid to ensure there’s no paint left inside. Some cities specifically exclude paint cans, so you’ll want to check locally.
Why is water-based paint recyclable, but not oil-based paint?
It’s not so much that oil-based paint is nonrecyclable, it is technically possible to blend it for reuse; the issue is that it is classified by the EPA as hazardous waste. There are special regulations when it comes to disposal of hazardous waste, which makes the economics of recycling unfeasible. Because water-based and acrylic paint is not considered hazardous, many states do not ban these dried paints from landfills.
What about lead-based paint?
The federal government banned lead-based paint sales in 1978, so not only is it unlikely you have any in your house, but hopefully it’s not on your walls. The government also banned mercury as an ingredient in paints in 1990. If you do come across lead-based paint in your garage, dispose of it through your HHW program.
How long will paint last?
The shelf life of water-based paint is 10 years and oil-based paint can last 15 years. All paint cans come with an expiration date printed on the can so you know when you need to dispose of unused paint. The best way to optimize the shelf life is through proper paint storage.
What does ABOP stand for, and why is it relevant to recycling?
ABOP stands for antifreeze, batteries, oil and paint, four products that are hazardous in a landfill but fully recyclable. They also represent the most common forms of consumer household hazardous waste. Many communities operate special collection events for these products.
How is water-based paint recycled?
There are two ways to recycle paint: reblending and reprocessing. Reblending is simply combining several paints together to make a new color. Reprocessing involves separating the paint by color, filtering out any solids, mixing with new paint and adding any pigment to get a desired color. It is then sold as recycled-content paint.
Where do I buy recycled-content paint?
One of the most common places to purchase water-based paint made from recycled content is through a Habitat for Humanity ReStore. PaintCare also has a list of these vendors throughout the U.S. You may also want to ask your city’s HHW collection program if it offers a swap shop, where you can take home hazardous materials, such as paint, free of charge.
Are there any states that require paint recycling?
Most states have banned oil-based paints from landfills. An exception is Georgia, where all household hazardous waste is legally allowed in the garbage because there are limited HHW programs available. In 11 states and the District of Columbia, paint recycling is funded through extended producer responsibility programs run by a product stewardship organization called PaintCare. When you buy a can of paint, you pay a fee that pays for water-based paint recycling and oil-based paint incineration.
If the paint is dry, can I throw it in the trash?
Yes, unless you live in California or Vermont, where paint is banned from landfills. If you’re looking to dry your paint, remove the lid and let it sit out for a few days. For more than a half-can of paint, use kitty litter or another absorbent material thicken and dry the material. Oil-based paint will be pretty tough to dry out, even with an absorbent, so your best bet is to donate it or take it to an HHW collection.
- Eco-Friendly Painting Tips Everyone Can Benefit From: A few helpful tips for everything from buying the right paint to properly disposing of leftover paint
- Non-Toxic Finger Paint Recipes So Easy a Kid Could Do It: How to make your own paint for kids’ art projects
- Recycling Mysteries: Paint: An in-depth look at the paint recycling process
- Governments, Residents Embrace Paint Recycling: The environmental perk of reusing leftover or recycled paint is just part of the appeal — it’s also a money saver.
- About PaintCare: You can take your old paint to PaintCare-affiliated paint stores in 11 states and the District of Columbia, where it will be sorted and managed for reuse, recycling, energy recovery, or safe disposal.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on June 5, 2016, and was last updated in January 2024.