Back in October of last year, this blog discussed what is termed the Regenerative Circular Economy in which coated products are recycled at the end of their useful lives, either in whole or in part rather than being incinerated or landfilled.

As the focus on sustainability increases in intensity, the number of ways in which coated products can be recycled is growing. Some rely on fascinating new science such as the polymerization of resins made from raw materials that include carbon dioxide. While this is the kind of innovation that will help the paint industry become more sustainable in the long term, there are some much more straight-forward ways in which recycling can be achieved through reuse. One such route has been operated across Canada for the past 16 years and has now been copied by some states of the U.S. The recycle of waste paint is also being actively pursued outside North America in countries such as the UK and Holland.

In the basement of my house in Pennsylvania, I have about 20 tins of left-over paint. I either over-estimated the amount of paint I would need for a particular room decoration, or I wanted to hold onto some for future touch-up purposes, or I bought the wrong color and could not return it to the retail outlet I purchased it from and get my money back. Whatever the story, I don’t need those tins anymore and should get rid of them.

I am not alone. According to the American Coatings Association, more than 10% of the 650 million gallons of architectural paint that is sold in the United States each year goes unused. It has been reported that in the United States, 70% of the waste paint is emulsion paint and the rest is solvent-based, and disposal costs across the nation amount to around $500m per year.

In Pennsylvania, I have been advised by local government to add some kitty litter to each tin of waste paint, let the paint go solid and then send if off as garbage for incineration. No chance to recycle or reuse there!  

In a recent visit to the American Coatings Association (ACA) in Washington, DC, I was brought up to speed on an innovative scheme designed to manage waste paint, mirroring a similar program in Canada. PaintCare® is a non-profit organization created and managed by the paint manufacturers themselves. Working with state and local governments, the paint industry offers to take ownership for the end-of-life management of paint products. Oregon was the first state to implement a paint product stewardship program for managing left-over paint in July 2010. California followed, and the program has now been adopted in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Vermont and Maine. The ACA is pursuing the state legislatures for the program in New Hampshire, New York, Washington, Illinois, Colorado, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. The program is financed by a small levy on each pot of paint sold and operates without state funding.

Through these state schemes, collection points are set up and companies are employed to process the waste paint that is received in a responsible manner. One such company is Amazon Paints, with facilities in California, Oklahoma and Minnesota. Amazon sorts waste emulsion paint received in original packaging. The company tests, blends, re-stabilizes, filters and repackages the paint into 12 SKUs. The paint is then ready for resale for interior and exterior applications at discount prices compared with virgin products through outlets such as Ace Hardware. Emulsion paint that cannot be made into new paint is incorporated into Portland cement processing. Solvent–based paint can be sent off for fuel blending. Amazon calculates that for every gallon of paint that is recycled, 115 pounds of carbon dioxide is saved. Multiply that number by 65 million and that is one big environmental saving!

The U.S. and Canadian paint industries are to be congratulated for taking such a responsible product stewardship approach which, while it has the potential to constrain sales of virgin paint, does make a significant contribution to reduced levels of raw material wastage and environmental pollution. Getting the paint industry to be accountable for its own waste stream should also reduce the overall cost of disposal since that is where you will best find knowledge on the contents of paints and expertise on how they can be handled safely.

What is also clear is that the paint industry cannot act on its own. Critical to the roll-out of this kind of scheme is active support and legislation from governments. Waste management is not generally regulated at a national level, and therefore working with local politicians becomes crucial to encouraging collection programs and approving legislation for levies on paint sales. It also needs committed partners in the form of retailers to promote the programs, with the resources and space to publicize, collect and store waste paint received from consumers.

 Hopefully, it won’t be too long before I no longer have to buy kitty litter to dispose of my waste paint in Pennsylvania. If you are in a state, like me, that has not taken up the PaintCare program, you might want to give your local politicians a nudge! I am sure the folks at the American Coatings Association would be delighted to hear from you!