Eco and Green Paints – What to Look for When Buying Paints to be Sustainable

Summary: Information and facts about eco or ‘green’ paints, including what they are and why we should be using them. Learn about how paints are made, so you can understand where unsustainable or less ecologically sensitive compounds have been used. We cover the dangers and health risks of traditional paints and why using ‘green’ paints is a good idea, as well as all the other pros and cons of Eco paints over traditional paint. See out guide to the leading Eco paint suppliers also.

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In a world where the environment is becoming more and more of a worry, you wouldn't think decorating had much impact. Think again though – you'd be surprised what nasties can lurk in a standard tub of paint. Go green and use eco paint to save both the environment and yourself.

Did you know that a normal tin of paint may contain formaldehyde, heavy metals and VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds)? What does that actually mean though? VOC's are gasses that are released from a liquid or solid material – these are what make some paints smell really strong.

Why is Paint and Painting So Bad?

On the face of it there could be nothing more satisfying than redecorating and giving the house a quick make over. However here are a few interesting facts to make you think:

  • Many paints are still made from the organic compounds derived from crude oil, and the petrochemical industry is considered to be in the top 3 most polluting industries in the world, releasing approximately 12% of the toxic chemicals released into the environment by industry
  • The World Health Organisation suggests that professional decorators are 40% more likely to contract lung cancer than the general population
  • For every litre of paint that is produced, up to 30 litres of toxic waste can be created, according to the Guardian
  • The US Environmental Protection Agency claim that 10% of paint that is purchased is never used, and there is nothing to suggest that figure would be much different here in the UK
  • The paint industry claims that less than 3% of the VOC's (see below for more information about Volatile Organic Compounds) released into the atmosphere in Europe come from decorative paint, and this is less that 1% from the UK. However, remember that this might first be released into the relatively confined atmosphere of your home, making it highly concentrated – that's a lot of VOC's in a small place
Many cans of half used paint

Do you know what's in your Paint?

Every step of the way has it problems; making paint is toxic, using it can be dangerous to one's health, and then it needs to be disposed of safely.

To understand why paint has these problems, and the how they can potentially be overcome with the use of Eco or “Green Environmentally Friendly” paints, you first need to understand how paints are made. This will highlight where the nasties are lurking.

“Organic” compounds, in this context, does not mean “green” and eco-friendly in the sense when used to describe sustainable materials. Here the meaning is derived from Organic Chemistry, which is the chemistry of carbon based compounds most commonly derived from crude oil, which is definitely not sustainable.

What is Paint and How is it Made?

All paints have 3 parts:

  • Pigment – This provides the colour for the paint. They are generally metal compounds or salts, such as titanium oxide for white, iron oxide for reds and browns. Mixtures of pigments will produce even more colours and shades
  • Binder – As the name suggests, this element of the paint binds the pigment, holding it in the paint and then they “stick” to the surface being painted. They also provide a level of protection to the surface being painted. Originally these were natural oils, now they are commonly synthetic plastics
  • Solvent – (sometimes called the carrier or vehicle and even Thinners). These thin the gluey texture of the binder with the pigment added to it. Their role is to make the paint easy to spread evenly on the surface, and then to evaporate quickly allowing the paint to dry leaving only the binder (protection) and pigment (colour)
  • Additives – These are extra chemicals that are added to the paint to improve specific qualities. For example, chemicals can be added to inhibit mould and mildew growth, to improve protection against sunlight, to make the paint more water repelling or rustproof. Also the texture of the paint can be made more durable by making the paint harder or more flexible

To make paint, the pigment first needs to be sourced and then ground up. Often pigments are derived from minerals that need to be dug up and then crushed into powder. This process will have an environmental impact. This power is then mixed with the binder in the right qualities, and with any other pigments to achieve the desired shade.

The solvents and additives are added to the mixture so that it becomes the right consistency to be painted. Additional fine tuning to achieve a uniform colour and consistency across batches is done by adding further pigments or binder until the paint is the right colour.

It's then added to cans and distributed ready for sale.

making paint by hand

Making Paint by hand - Image courtesy of Howcast

What is Eco Paint?

An Eco or “Environmentally Friendly” paint is a paint that meets certain environmental or ecological credentials; however there are no standards for these so there is potential for abuse. The key things to consider when selecting an eco paint:

  • The manufacture process – this might be highly intensive, requiring minerals extracted from the earth in an environmentally damaging way or the process of creating the compounds might have a high environmental impact, such as distilling the binder or solvents
  • The ingredients – These could be highly environmentally damaging, exacerbating air pollution for example
  • Health risks – some compounds that are used in paints are hazardous and can have an effect on your health. These will be regulated so that they are kept at levels that are deemed acceptable
  • Transport Impact – Pre-mixed paints are heavy and the transport of them will have an impact, so you might want to consider a local manufacturer
  • Compromise – As with anything with Eco credentials, there might be some compromised you have you make, such as the range of colours available, the drying time of the paint and often the cost will be a little more

Basically you have to read the label and avoid the things that you find most troubling.

It is actually easier to answer this question by explaining what is not Eco or Green paint, because there are no set standards or rules that determine what actually qualifies. This is frustrating because it means that you have to decide what is important to you and make your choice based on this.

When it comes to pigments, natural and “green” compounds typically do not produce as wide a range or such vivid colours, certainly as cheaply, as some of the more toxic elements or compounds. Cadmium, lead and chromium have all been used to colour paints to name some of the most toxic, but there are many more unpleasant pigments still being used.

The binder, as we have mentioned, is often made from organic compounds (derived from crude oil) rather than natural compounds such as plant extracts and seed oils or even clay.

The solvent by definition needs to be an effective thinner and also be able to evaporate quickly to allow the paint to dry. Water has commonly been used, but more effective compounds, VOC's (Volatile Organic Compounds) have been used for many years and are very effective. But they have a nasty downside.

VOC's tend to make the paint stink – there's a really popular post in our forum with a lot of discussion about stinky paint. There are also documented health issues and air pollution issues. You can find more information about this and the precautions that you should take in the HSE website.

VOC paint label

Example of a VOC Paint label

The EU introduced strict rules on VOCs a in 2004 and then tightened them in 2007 and again 2010, so paint manufacturers have had to work hard at finding ways to produce paint without those harmful chemicals. However the replacements aren't always good. Titanium Dioxide is an ingredient which is often used as a whitener in paint, but it's a controversial substance that should be avoided if possible.

Most paints, even today, will have some VOC's, but the legislation has reduced this considerably. The percentage of VOC's will be shown on the label and will vary depending on the type of paint. These are the levels:

  • Minimal VOC: Less than 0.29 percent
  • Low VOC: 0.3–7.99 percent
  • Medium VOC: 8–24.99 percent
  • High VOC: 25–50 percent
  • Very high VOC: Over 50 percent

Metallic paints, such as radiator paints might be in the High or even Very High category. Gloss paints might be Medium, particularly if oil based. However water based emulsions would be Low or perhaps Minimal.

As there are no standards or specific regulation so you might find paints being marketed as environmentally friendly or green, particularly if they have Low or Minimal VOC content. Don't be fooled by a green leaf motif or similar; you have to read the label to really know what's in the tin!

Choosing from selection of paints

Choosing an Eco Paint isn't as easy as it sounds - Image courtesy of Elle Décor

There are eco paints and eco paints. Some are produced with a low carbon footprint in mind, but may still use synthetic chemicals. Some may use natural ingredients, but take them from animals rather than plants. Plant-based, water-based paints are the kindest ones to use all-round.

Why Eco Paint – the Pros and Cons?

You should know that it is a good idea to ensure a room is well ventilated when decorating, due to teh potential presence of VOC's. It doesn't stop there though; these noxious gasses can continue to be released for up to five years after you've finished painting.

So if you want to avoid getting high next time you do some decorating, aim for a water-based paint. Good eco paints are completely VOC-free. At the very least, a natural solvent-based paint is more likely to smell lemony-fresh than offensive and harmful.

It's not all about you though. Companies which create plant-based, water-based eco-paints are also much more likely to be aware of how their processes affect the environment.

Packaging, energy consumption and transportation are all things that have an impact on the footprint of a paint, and all things that should be considered by a good eco-company.

It used to be that eco paints were hard to get hold of, awkward to use, expensive and of questionable quality. However, in recent years awareness of the environment has moved forward so much, and eco paints have moved forward with it.

At least one range of eco paints are available in many large DIY stores now, and if you shop online you can find a wide range of companies offering eco solutions. (See our selection of leading paint manufacturers, below).

They may be a little more expensive than conventional paints, but eco paints are now available in a huge range of colours and finishes, from standard matt emulsion to gloss and satinwoods. You may think you won't be able to find a wipeable, hard-wearing paint that's eco-friendly, but you'd be surprised.

Here's a quick summary of the pros and cons; we won't labour the points that we have already covered too much:

Pros of Eco or “Green” Paints Cons of Eco or “Green” Paints
Health Benefits – Particularly important if you have children in the home or you already suffer from breathing difficulties. Longer drying times – the solvents used are not so volatile so drying times can be 12-16 hours in some cases
Environmental benefits – both from the more ecological approach to making the paint and the materials used. Smaller range of colours – some of the vivid colours derived from synthetic or toxic minerals cannot be reproduced easily
Performance has struggled to compete with some traditional paints – drying time, durability, colour fade, etc – but they are catching up fast Water solubility means that they can wear more quickly or “wash off”
Premixed traditional paints are heavy and hard to transport Price – they can be expensive due to the extra processes required to make the constituent parts
Breathable – being made from synthetic products they are naturally Local mixing can cause colour and paint consistency issues
Disposal – if your paint is inert and made entirely of natural ingredients it is much easier to get rid of it Manufacturer's claims – what is Eco to them might not be to you!
Natural pigments are highly prized due to the richer hue they often give Coverage might be poor or inconsistent meaning you might need an extra coat
Access – It can still be hard to get the Eco paint you want, although with online retailers become more prevalent this is changing
Where they can be used is limited, but less and less so. But still there are no really effective eco radiator paints for example

Top Tip: Get a tester pot or two and see how the paint works in your home. This is much more important with Eco paint as you will then be able to see how it works in situ before you commit to painting the whole room.

Buying Eco Paints?

If you are interested in purchasing and experimenting with these paints there are several companies out there that specialise in eco and environmentally friendly paints.

We have not used all of these paints listed here, as we are usually directed by the client to the paint they want to use, but this is a comprehensive range of the most established suppliers that we have come across:

  • Aglaia - German in origin and use only natural ingredients. Their paint can be applied to metals, timber, interior walls etc.... and come in a range of different colours. Also allows you to mix your own paint colours.naturalpaintsonline.co.uk
    Aglaia Paints

    Aglaia Paints

  • Auro - They have been making paints made using natural raw materials from environmentally managed sources and produced using a sustainable ecological cycle. Its gloss paint is Ethical Consumer's best buy. auro.co.uk
    Auro Paints

    Auro Paints

  • Colourtrend – This is an Irish paint producer specialising in acrylic paints that can be used for decorative purposes. They make and sell water based, low VOC and lead free paint in over 13,000 different colours and numerous finishes. colourtrend.ie
    Colourtrend Paints

    Colourtrend Paints

  • Earthbourn – These paints are petrochemical free and water-based and also carry the EU eco-label flower accreditation. Range of differing colours available. earthbornpaints.co.uk
    Earthbourn Paints

    Earthbourn Paints

  • Eico - These paints are “manufactured in Iceland and Sweden to exacting environmental standards, using 100% geothermal or hydropower energy, making the production process carbon positive. eico.co.uk
    Eico Paints

    Eico Paints

  • Lakeland - Produce completely solvent and VOC free paints for floors, woodwork and walls. Huge range of colours available plus the ability to match to existing colours. It was the world's first complete range of odourless, solvent free, non-toxic decorative paints, so they say. lakelandpaints.co.uk
    Lakeland Paints

    Lakeland Paints

  • Little Greene - This is a wallpaper and paint manufacturer with a range of environmentally friendly paints to suit most interior and exterior applications. They are water-based, quick-drying, child-safe finishes for use throughout the home. Traditionalists will favour our classic, long-lasting oil-based paints, which use naturally occurring vegetable oils instead of harmful solvents. littlegreene.com
    Little Greene Paints

    Little Greene Paints

  • Nutshell - healthy, non-toxic alternative to conventional paint products. Their emulsions are allergy free with no toxic fumes and are completely free of vinyl resins and harmful petrochemical solvents. nutshellpaints.co.uk
    Nutshell Paints

    Nutshell Paints

  • Edward Bulmer – They use renewable raw materials to create the lowest possible carbon footprint and adopt the highest standard of ethical trading. edwardbulmerpaint.co.uk
    Edward Bulmer Paints

    Edward Bulmer Paints

Final Word – Disposing of Un-needed Paint

It is really important to dispose of your paint sensibly. You local council will do this, but only if it has completely dried out, so leave in somewhere that it can do this without stinking you out (if it is high in VOC's). You can find your local waste disposal facilities on the governments waste disposal site finder app.

Alternatively you can give your excess paint to a charity to use in on a good cause.  Community Repaint is a perfect example.

Of course, of you have use Eco paint then your disposal options are much easier!

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