An eco-paint buyers guide
Paints have become more eco-friendly in recent years, but there are still traps to look out for. Daniel Wurm explains the advantages of using environmentally friendly paints.
The painting industry has undergone a tremendous transformation over the last 10 years. Back in 2006, I was the only painter in Melbourne to have phased out toxic solvent-based paints. The rest of the industry looked at me as some kind of tree-hugging hippie when I spoke about the dangers of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) to human health and the environment. The last time I wrote for ReNew it was still difficult to find low- and zero-VOC paints, and recycling of waste was a massive issue.
Fast forward to 2016, and I am pleased to say that my industry has taken huge strides down the path of sustainability. It’s a good news story that I am happy to tell. Green is not just a fashion statement: it’s becoming standard practice. Let’s look at some of the developments and see how far we’ve come.
First of all, low-VOC paints now make up the majority of paint sold. Almost all painters have at least tried them and all manufacturers have introduced low-VOC versions of their paints. In many cases, even their cheaper trade lines are now low-VOC. This means that low-VOC paints are available from all paint stores.
In addition, over 500 painters across Australia have been trained to identify and use low-VOC paints, and even apprentices are being taught about them as standard practice. No one argues about the health risks of solvent paints anymore; we all know there are issues and we all want to protect our health.
If any painter tries to tell you that low-VOC or zero-VOC paints will cost more or won’t last, simply walk away and find another painter. If they haven’t got the message yet, they probably never will! Almost all major projects including schools and hospitals now have low-VOC paints specified.
Low-VOC paints are categorised according to their use. For example, the Australian Paint Approval Scheme classes low-VOC low-sheen paints as having less than 5 g per litre of VOCs. We could argue about which standard to use when measuring VOCs, but that is about as interesting as watching paint dry, and VOCs are only part of the issue.
More than VOCs
I prefer to look at the whole-of-life cycle perspective. For example, some manufacturers now offer zero-VOC paints across their range and are independently certified by a recognised eco-label. Why not support these manufacturers, who have shown transparency in their manufacturing process? GECA certification (www.geca.org.au) looks at where the raw materials were sourced and what effect the manufacturing process has on the environment. To me, there is little point in choosing a low-VOC paint if the manufacturer is still producing toxic paint; true sustainability can only be achieved when manufacturers look at it holistically.
Natural paints are paints that are manufactured using the least amount of processing. All paints are made from chemicals, but we now know that the more humans alter raw materials, the higher risk there is of those chemicals affecting our health and the environment. I like to think of natural paints as the ‘bio-dynamic’ products of the painting industry; not everyone wants to use them, they cost more, but they minimise exposure to toxic chemicals. Natural paints are made from ingredients such as linseed oil, minerals, earth pigments, lime and beeswax. They may be a good choice for people with allergies. See the table at the end of this article for a condensed list of suppliers of natural and low-toxicity paints. The full table will be available on the ReNew website at www.renew.org.au/sustainable-houses/136-paint-guide.
I don’t recommend natural paints for exterior applications; the whole point of using paint is to protect a building from premature deterioration and sometimes plastic is the best way to do it!
Exterior painting options
However, if you really desire to use natural paints inside and out, then there are some exterior paint options you may want to consider.
The best natural paints to use outdoors are mineral-based paints, such as Murobond’s Cement Paint. Some of these options can be combined with waterproofing undercoats for a longer lasting and more weatherproof result. However, mineral-based paints do not flex and should only be used on masonry surfaces, never on flexible surfaces such as wood. Although synthetic exterior paints may come with long warranties, even up to 15 years, the expected lifespan of natural mineral-based exterior paints seems to be no more than 10 years, so you should expect to repaint after this time.
A number of manufacturers make natural enamel paints that they rate as suitable for outdoor use. A typical example is the Bio Enamel range from Bio Products, which gives a hard finish suitable for outdoor trims and surfaces. Another exterior enamel is the VINDO Natural Gloss Oil Paint from Livos.
However, while manufacturers state their outdoor suitability, my experience has been that when used outdoors, natural enamels will degrade much faster as they lack the UV inhibitors of synthetic paints. So, I do not recommend natural enamels for outdoor use, but if using them, keep their use to areas which see little sun and weather, or expect to repaint them every few years.
Heat-reflective exterior paints
It’s also important to consider the energy efficiency of the building getting painted. Using a heat-reflective paint will not only give greater longevity, it will also cut cooling costs in summer. Only some heat-reflective paints are what they say they are; look for paints that are CodeMark certified.
Some paints are sold as insulating paints, but a layer of material less than 1 mm thick can’t provide much insulation unless it is reflective. In reality, ‘insulating’ paints are just heat-reflective paints—beware of any paint that claims to provide conductive insulation.
Natural paint colours are usually a little more subdued than synthetic paints, although quite a broad colour palette can be found from a number of the suppliers listed in this guide—although don’t expect to find as extensive a range as with synthetic paints.
Most natural paints are supplied as a white base to which mineral- and plant-based pigments are added, allowing you to produce almost any colour you like, although you generally won’t find very bright colours in these ranges.
Generally, natural paints are applied in a similar manner to synthetic paints, using brush, roller or even spraying. Like all paints, you follow the instructions to get a good result, so it’s worth reading up on the best way to apply the particular paint you have in mind to see if it suits your requirements.
Some paints, such as cement paints, are supplied as a powder that you mix with water. You may need to experiment with small quantities of the mixture to find the best consistency for your use, but be patient, the end result of using a natural paint is well worth a bit of extra effort.
Recycling old paint
One of the biggest stories in the painting industry is the introduction of the new Paintback scheme (www.paintback.com.au). This is a collaboration between paint manufacturers, retailers and state governments to introduce a product stewardship program, and it started this year! Paint manufacturers now charge a small levy on all domestic paint sold and this levy is collected and used to pay for a nation-wide recycling scheme. The scheme will make it free for anyone to dispose of waste paint at a collection point. This waste will be sorted and eventually recycled into useful product, closing the loop in the manufacturing process.
Paintback is establishing collection points Australia-wide, starting in major population areas and aiming to have 70 permanent sites over the next three years. It gives do-it-yourself and commercial painters a pathway for unwanted architectural and decorative paint and packaging. It is funded through a 15 cents plus GST per litre levy on eligible products, between 1 litre and 20 litres inclusive. The monies collected will go to Paintback Ltd, which is an independent not-for-profit organisation. Its governing rules ensure that these funds will be used to establish and operate the collection program and research new ways to repurpose unwanted paint materials. Paintback will also fund research to find better uses for unwanted paint.
Waste water from cleaning tools can be a problem when acrylic paints are used. The chemicals in acrylic paints, even zero-VOC brands, are fungicidal and so waste water should not be tipped into stormwater or sewerage systems.
Although the law allows waste water to be discharged on a flat grassy area away from drains, it’s best to hire a painter that has a waste-water treatment unit. There are a number of systems available, and reputable painters, such as accredited GreenPainters, use these systems either on-site or off-site to treat the waste water prior to discharge. This is also better for your garden or vegie patch. No one wants paint chemicals ending up on their organic vegie garden!
Waste water from truly natural paints, on the other hand, is unlikely to contain toxic chemicals and the minerals present might even be good for your garden! Any hardened waste paint can usually be composted.
List of paint manufacturers
See the original article in issue 136 of Renew magazine for a table of companies that produce paints using non-toxic or minimal toxicity materials and/or have an environmental certification. The table was prepared by Renew based on information received from suppliers.
This article was published in issue 136 of Renew magazine. Issue 136 in an Australian-made special.