The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) categorizes paint and coating waste as hazardous if oil-based, or non-hazardous if latex-based. Some states and local governments are even more restrictive on categorizing waste paint no matter its composition. It is proven that paint can have a significant impact on the viability of the environment, especially that of aquatic habitats. In recent studies, chemicals within paint, such as tributyltin (TBT), were highlighted as being toxic to and endangering marine life — a fact that was corroborated by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF). The study also applauded changes in regulations as a result of research that tracked the effects of TBT on oysters, tuna and other marine life. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) have also been shown to impose negative impacts on the ozone layer. The effects of sustained exposure to the chemicals can result in irrevocable harm to an ecosystem, as well as the health of the human population exposed to or consuming the contaminated water or fish.

Additionally, latex paint that is approved to be landfilled can result in inadvertent seepage into the sewer systems. Wastewater treatment is not designed to purge paint chemicals effectively from the water, especially if the spill is concentrated. The inability to manage containment, as well as the significant risks for contamination of water sources, is another reason paint waste needs to be disposed of properly, avoiding landfills. Because of this, paint manufacturers have a unique responsibility to produce paint that doesn't harm our environment, as well as ensuring it is disposed of properly.


Industry Disruption Due to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has required every market to evaluate how it is conducting its business. New synergies and partnerships formed to respond to the market pressures and overcome the new obstacles that it introduced. According to a recently published 2021 corporate sustainability outlook, companies in nearly all industries across the nation found unique alignments to provide lasting solutions in response to the pandemic-related challenges of the last year. These alignments, along with private sector momentum, will have a permanent impact on sustainable programs in the next five years and beyond. The companies that are willing to explore partnerships and expand beyond historical norms in business practice may uncover new ways to fast track their sustainability results, with minimal changes to front-end production models. Organizations that are already implementing sustainability initiatives today, even through COVID, have a competitive edge, as consumers are looking for a strong sense of corporate responsibility and a solid environmental track record.

Overall, it is still too early to tell how paint waste generation has been impacted in the last year. Household hazardous waste (HHW) events have begun to come back to cities across the country over the last few months, where paint is often an accepted material. Initial indications are that pent up volumes are driving higher turnout at these events than prior years, but it is still unclear if this will continue, as many communities have just recently opened up their events again.  It is known that sales within the home improvement sector were up significantly versus prior years as homeowners flocked to improve their homes and complete DIY lists with the time allocated during quarantine. These higher than usual volumes may result in more paint waste in the market over the next several months to a year.


What this Means for Paint Brands, Manufacturers

Waste minimization and carbon offsets are key pillars in any corporate sustainability plan. Paint manufacturers and distributors are no different in this regard. The ability to find alternative outlets to dispose of latex- and oil-based paints can reduce not only the total volume of waste reported, but also drive down the carbon emissions from transportation if structured more locally. Consumers, especially millennials, are very focused on the results companies publish on their quarterly or annual sustainability reports. While the 1990s focused mainly on the reduction of VOCs via new additives and advances in paint chemistry, the 21st century is pressuring the industry to reduce waste and minimize the carbon footprint.

Sustainability efforts are included in the majority of all major paint manufacturers’ goals. Most companies are exploring opportunities to improve the composition of their paints and resins to reduce or eliminate the dependence on fossil fuels and plastics. As mentioned previously, customer interests are very focused on the sustainable practices of a brand. Customers now expect the brands they purchase from to meet their published goals and maintain a near spotless reputation within the market. Waste disposal and minimization are essential components of a successful customer retention strategy. One way to alleviate some of this pressure is by selecting a credible third-party sustainability company that would create a partnership to aid and alleviate the pressure of safely and effectively achieving waste minimization and disposal goals.


Choosing a Partner

Achieving zero waste is a journey — it is not a one and done deal. The chosen third-party sustainability partner must take many considerations into account and look at all pieces of the puzzle. Finding a partner who can solve the very difficult challenge of making it easy to properly manage difficult-to-treat waste is an easy thing to say, but a hard thing to do. Key areas to look for when vetting this third-party include:

  • A history of success in similar sized companies with similar goals.

  • Interest and commitment in the company’s specific needs and goals.

  • A robust network of outlets or strong partnerships to offer a variety of waste alternatives.

  • A committed timeline and method to track outcomes clearly and consistently.

  • A history of valid permitting and compliance reporting by all parties involved in program management.


Solutions that are planned should be communicated and encouraged at the site level. Team members within the organization should be encouraged to discuss how their daily decisions and actions impact the overall company performance to the targets. In addition, goals should be allocated to the local level to ensure alignment and clear accountability to all facets of the supply chain. Regular touchpoints should be scheduled between the sites, corporate management and the vendor to reinforce open dialogue and resolve opportunities that could undermine or divert from the plan. This communication process also ensures sites have a voice in the program success and can promote more innovative solutions as the program matures. These steps ensure that a zero-waste program outlasts corporate changes in leadership, market pressures and seeps into the daily culture of the business.

Additionally, at the foundation of all programs, a partner should offer compliance and risk avoidance.  They should ensure programs are developed to uphold compliance with all environmental regulations and focus on the future by keeping paint manufacturers from risk and expensive costs in the future. Ultimately, it is about putting the organization’s best interest first.


Looking Toward the Future

It is expected that domestic U.S. construction will increase over the next couple of years. This is a change in the forecasts provided pre-COVID as migration from urban areas to more suburban communities is on the rise. This surge in construction will result in a spike in paint demands that will add additional pressure to maximizing alternate end-of-life management options versus the traditional disposal infrastructure of landfill and incineration, which may include recycling and fuel blending. It is also documented that the U.S. landfill capacity in some regions is beginning to reach maximum capacity. Some states estimate landfills exceeding max capacity within the next 10 years. Paint containers drive additional volume to an already stressed disposal outlet in some key regions like the northeastern U.S. The pressure this puts on the environment and infrastructure requires businesses to act responsibly and prudently in how they manage the large volumes of paint waste they can potentially generate. Aside from the environmental responsibility, fiscally, it makes sense to repurpose, reuse or recycle every resource a company manages to restrict costs and drive efficiencies. These decisions will not only drive a sustainable environment but could also result in a sustainable bottom line as well.

Recent introduction of universal waste designation to aerosols presents a potentially significant opportunity to both reduce waste and promote reuse. Aerosol paint represents one of the largest streams of waste in the industry today. It will be exciting over the next few years to see how the recycling and waste management industry responds to the evolving chemistry of paint. As the industry moves closer to more organic and environmentally conscious solutions to paint production, it is clear the options for reuse and recycling will continue to expand in kind. It is amazing how the industry continues to innovate more sustainable paint options while continuing to support the quality expectations consumers demand, one of those options being PaintCare. PaintCare is a non-profit organization that represents paint manufacturers to plan and operate paint stewardship programs in U.S. states and jurisdictions that pass paint stewardship laws. In parallel, the waste management industry must match this innovation to ensure alternatives to waste disposal and develop convenient, cost-effective solutions as volumes are expected to increase.


About the Author

Jason McMahon is also the National Account Manager of Clean Earth’s Fullcircle™ business, an Advanced Waste Lifecycle Program. This program strategically analyzes waste and all related byproducts at each source of generation, including prior generation, then offers solutions for recycling and beneficial reuse alternatives for the material.