Humans have been freshening up their homesteads with a splash of paint for, oh, 35,000 years now. Debbie Travis’s Painted House is proof enough that our techniques have evolved from the old cave-painting days. Too bad it took us so long to realize that slapping lead on our walls was a bad idea or that adding mercury—yes, neurotoxic mercury—to latex paint as a mould inhibitor was just plain dumb. We finally got rid of both entirely by the early ’90s, but that doesn’t mean today’s paints are free of hazards.
Low VOC and No VOC: Low-VOC paints are all the rage, but most of us have no clue what VOCs actually are. Volatile organic compounds help make paints spreadable and dry the way we like them to, but these chemicals can continue to off-gas from your walls for weeks or months. Not good, considering the VOCs in paint include known carcinogens and neurotoxins like benzene, formaldehyde, kerosene, ammonia and toluene. No wonder laying down a coat of paint can make the air quality in your home 1,000 times worse than that of outdoor air. As you can imagine from the smell, oil paints are much worse than water-based latex paints when it comes to air-polluting, headache-inducing VOCs. Still, acrylic-based latex paints contain up to 10% VOCs. It’s no wonder, then, that the trendiest paints hitting stores these days are the low-VOC kind.
THE NEW DESIGN PARADIGM: CRADLE TO CRADLE
You know that whole Industrial Revolution-style way we just take, take, take from nature then express our thanks with a heaping mass of garbage? Well, instead of designing cradle-to-grave products primed for the dump, William McDonough and Michael Braungart are hoping to power the Next Industrial Revolution in a more nature-friendly way. Through their groundbreaking 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, as well as their design firm MBDC (McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry), they’re transforming industry by creating products for cradle-to-cradle cycles, where materials are “perpetually circulated in closed loops.” Under their system, all materials, including the fabric of that chair you’re parked on, would either cleanly return to the earth as organic nutrients or be harm-free “technical nutrients” that can be recycled in perpetuity or “upcycled.” Meaning those manufactured goods would have to be endlessly reusable, not the one-or two-use wonders of today’s plastics. And they’ve put their vision into practice with nearly 200 products (including office chairs by Herman Miller, Steelcase and others, wall coverings by Milliken and carpet tiles by Shaw) that they’ve fostered through their Cradle to Cradle certification system. The end products aren’t necessarily perfect (no item has received platinum certification, for instance, and not all have upcycling infrastructure in place), but McDonough and Braungart are trying to keep the trajectory moving ahead to a brighter, greener future (mbdc.com).
Canada’s just developing its own standards in 2009, and it looks like low-VOC flat paint will be capped at 100 grams of VOCs per litre, with high-gloss paint capped at 250. The Green Seal logo from the U.S. and Canada’s own EcoLogo are a lot stricter. Green Seal-and EcoLogo-certified paints have to have less than 50 grams of VOCs per litre for flat paints and less than 150 grams per litre for non-flat paints with colourants added. Plus, they have to be free of “carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxins, hazardous air pollutants or ozone-depleting compounds.”
Many certified paints go beyond low-VOC into no-VOC territory. YOLO Colorhouse (yolocolorhouse.com), Sico’s Design line (sico.ca), Olympic’s Flat Enamel line (olympic.com) and General Paint’s Z-Coat(generalpaint.com) are all good zero-VOC, Green Seal-certified paints. AFM Safecoat also makes great zero-VOC wall paint. For green retail paint stores in Canada, consult Resources: Green Home Storefronts at the back of the book. Many of the regular green home storefronts listed there also carry eco paint.
WALL OF SHAME: LEAD PAINT
Pop quiz time. Do you a) plan to reno a home built between 1960 and 1980? b) live in a home built before 1960 with preschool-age children crawling around? or c) plan on sanding down exterior paint on a home built before 1992?
a) If you answered yes to this one, then you might want to get your paint tested. Get a lead-testing kit from your local hardware store or online (leadinspector.com) before you start sanding and grinding things down—or demolishing entire walls. Paint companies started phasing out lead in the ’60s (back when paint was up to 50% lead!), but small amounts were still used through the ’70s. You wouldn’t want to kick up lead dust now, would you? If your lead test comes back positive, you’ll need to take extra safety precautions. Call in a lead remediator.
b) If you’ve got young kids putting random objects in their mouths, then you need to move into high gear. Especially since pediatricians say your kids are at higher risk of lead poisoning from paint dust and flakes than from lead in toys. You have a few options here: if the surface is in good condition and not peeling, just paint over it; if the surface is cracked and peeling, cover it with drywall or vinyl-free wallpaper. Also, replace all the old baseboards, doors and window frames, then vacuum very well. If you’re worried about your family’s lead levels, ask your doctor for a blood test.
c) If you answered yes to this one and plan on sanding down exterior items such as window panes, you’ll want to be extra careful, since lead could have been used in exterior paint until, oh, 1992. Wear protective masks and goggles, and wash shoe soles and clothing when you’re done.
No-and low-VOC acrylic paints have generally been limited to dull, muted shades in eggshell and flat finishes. Truth is, big bright colours in high gloss still generally require more VOC-releasing petrochemicals, but few paint companies will come right out and tell you this. So to this day most of your greener acrylic options will start with a low-or no-VOC base then add whatever hue your heart desires, which in turn spikes your VOC content. Benjamin Moore, though, says it’s developed a Color Lock waterborne colourant system in its Aura and new zero-VOC Natura lines that doesn’t add VOCs to its paints and is so effective it often gets the job done in one, max two, coats, saving you paint and money.
Keep in mind, throughout all this paint shopping, that VOC-free doesn’t mean it’s all natural, chemical-free or necessarily non-toxic. It just means it’s free of a particular family of air-polluting chemicals, namely VOCs. Your paintbrush might still be dipping into some pretty harsh fungicides and biocides. Best to ask.
FYI, low-odour oil paints aren’t greener, they just don’t smell as bad. And low-VOC oil paints don’t have to meet the same VOC standards as latex.
Natural Paint: Want to really paint your walls green? (Well, not literally, though sage is a lovely colour.) BioShield paints, stains, thinners and waxes are made from mostly naturally derived raw materials like tree resins, citrus peel extracts, essential oils, mineral fillers, beeswax and natural pigments(bioshieldpaint.com). Green Planet Paints offers plant-based paints with mineral colours (greenplanetpaints.com; available through green Canadian home stores listed at sipdistribution.ca under “where to buy”).
If you love the southwestern look of plaster walls, you can’t get much greener than American Clay’s products. It uses clays, recycled and reclaimed aggregates, and rich natural pigments, all from the southern U.S. (americanclay.com;available through green stores listed at sipdistribution.ca). BioShield also makes clay paint, using different types of clay to achieve different hues. A little closer to home, silicate mineral paint, manufactured by New Brunswick-based Eco-House, is ideal for concrete, stucco, brick, stone and new drywall, though it doesn’t work quite as well on repainted surfaces (eco-house.com). This 19th-century German invention uses a liquid mineral (potassium silicate) as the binder and is guaranteed to never peel or blister, plus it’s naturally antibacterial and solvent-free. It comes in 10 rich, earthen colours that can be diluted, creating 50 shades to pick from. There are interior and exterior versions, as well as semi-transparent stains.
Your most benign choice has got to be milk paint. This ancient decorative finish has been around since Cleopatra was bathing in milk herself. It’s more commonly used to get that antique finish on wood furniture, but this milk powder, lime protein and mineral mix can also be applied on drywall, plaster and stucco. Parents are turning to milk paint as a worry-free nursery wall finish, and people with chemical sensitivities trust it in their homes. Just steer clear of fakers who sneak in plastics or formaldehyde. Trusted sources includeHomestead House Paint Company (homesteadhouse.ca) and Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company (milkpaint.com) or inquire at any green home store. Wanna try making your own? Check out realmilkpaint.com/recipe.html and add colour with saffron threads, turmeric or clay-based hues.
To source natural paint products, see Resources: Green Home Storefronts.
Sealants, Waxes and Paint Strippers: Looking for non-toxic, environmentally preferred sealants, adhesives, caulking compounds and paints? AFM Safecoat is the go-to company. Plus, it makes a natural line of oils, waxes and thinners(afmsafecoat.com). B.C.’s Broda Coatings makes great low-and no-VOC wood finishes that stand up to rainy and snowy west coast conditions. CBR Products, the same company that distributes Broda, also sells greener graffiti removal, paint strippers, concrete coatings and more (cbrproducts.com). New Brunswick’sEco-House makes a wonderful beeswax wood finish, tree-resin wood and cork finish, carnauba floor wax and more (eco-house.com). Osmo is another greener source for wood stains and finishes, though it has to travel from Germany(raincoastalternatives.com).
Peeling paint off furniture or walls can bring some seriously hazardous chemicals, like methylene chloride, into your home, unless you smarten up. There are methylene chloride-free paint removers at cbrproducts.com, like ABR Citrus Gel Paint Remover, which should strip layers of latex, oil, stains and varnishes.
Soy Gel strips urethanes and all paints, including lead-based paint(franmar.com or greenbuildingsupply.com). Though remember, you don’t want to be stripping lead paint without advice from a pro.
Cleanup: Even though your municipality says you can wash your latex paintbrushes in the sink, that doesn’t mean you should get cocky and pour a half-empty quart down there. And don’t be a jerk and pour paint down a storm drain. If you do, the next time it rains and those storm sewers overflow into local water bodies, those toxic chems from your last paint job will be killing fish.
- Wipe off your brushes with a newspaper. If you’re putting a job on pause for a day or two, just wrap your brushes and paint tray in a plastic bag.
- Oil paint should never be rinsed into your sink (just good old common sense, really). Once your brushes have been wiped in newspaper, soak your brushes in some eco-friendly paint thinner (Bioshield Citrus Thinner and AFM Safecoat Naturals Diluent/Reducer are two good alternatives;bioshieldpaint.com, afmsafecoat.com or from green building supply stores—see Resources: Green Home Storefronts) and wipe them with a rag. To soften them up for the next paint job, just soak them in some diluted shampoo, rinse and dry.
- Used paint thinner shouldn’t be trashed! If you let the paint settle to the bottom and pour the clear liquid off the top into a labelled jar, you can reuse a large portion of that thinner. Just take the leftover sludge to a local household hazardous-waste depot.
Disposal: Nearly 40% of Canadian households have old paint cans kicking around gathering dust, and we have no clue what to do with them. So whatshould you do with those rusty, half-full cans? Why, you call your municipality and ask them the same question. It might recycle paint cans and even the paint itself. In fact, paint stewardship programs have sprouted up in many provinces, including Quebec’s Paint Recovery Program (eco-peinture.ca), Saskatchewan’sPost-Consumer Paint Stewardship Program (saskwastereduction.ca), Nova Scotia’s Paint Recycling Program (rrfb.com) and, most recently, Ontario’s Do What You Can initiative (dowhatyoucan.ca) and Alberta’s Too Good To Wasteprogram (albertarecycling.ca). The programs are largely funded through fees paid on new paint, though old paint cans are dropped off for recycling or swapping at no charge. Even if your town or province isn’t doing the right thing and recycling old paint into new paint, your local hazardous-waste depot should be happy to take your old paint cans for recycling. (See Resources: Household Hazardous Waste Disposal Guide.)
WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND: BOOMERANG PAINT
What goes around really should come around. If you’re a true believer in 3Rs. Quebec-based Boomerang Recycled Paint manages to reduce the amount of new paint Canadians use, reuse old paint and recycle metallic paint cans, all in all processing 5 million kilograms of paint a year from all over Quebec, Ontario, the Maritimes and B.C. into sixteen lovely new colours of latex, four shades of oil paints and six hues of wood stains, for only, like, $12 a gallon. Bonus: Boomerang paints are even low-VOC! Really, you can’t get paint any greener or cheaper, unless you smear blades of grass clippings on your walls (boomerangpaint.com).