A lot goes into making the perfect can of paint. With the enormous range of options available, choosing the right one for your project can be a challenge. It’s one thing to figure out what colour will look best, or getting just the right amount of shine, but how can you know which paint is best for the environment – and for your health?
It can be helpful to know what’s actually inside the can. Paint generally consists of three components: pigment, binder, and solvent. It also usually contains extra substances, such as biocides to prevent bacterial and fungal growth (both inside the tin and on the final painted surface). Each component can have significant impacts on the environment and human health.
The solvent of a paint is a ‘carrier’ which evaporates once the paint has dried. Solvents generally fall into two categories: water-based or organic. Water is preferred because it doesn’t cause environmental problems as it evaporates, whereas organic solvents release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the surrounding air. Solvent-based paint also contains around 50 per cent more embodied energy than water-based paint, which means it takes a lot of energy to produce the product across its whole life cycle.
VOCs are detrimental to indoor air quality. Exposure to VOCs can trigger headaches; irritation to eyes, nose and throat; allergic reactions; and asthma. They’re also suspected to cause cancer in humans and have been associated with “sick building syndrome”. VOC levels in indoor air environments rise sharply straight after painting, but the compounds can continue to seep out of the surface for years to come.
The pigment is what gives a paint its colour, opacity, and a protective barrier. Titanium dioxide is used widely in the paint industry for this purpose. Unfortunately, manufacturing titanium dioxide carries an environmental impact, since it’s a limited resource and its production results in unwanted air and water emissions. It also has high embodied energy.
The binder is what forms the film in a paint, helping it to adhere to the surface and influencing the resulting shine or flexibility. They can consist of synthetic or natural resins such as acrylics, polyurethanes, vinyl acrylics, melamine resins, epoxies, or oils. Some binders cause a greater environmental impact than others. In particular, linoleic acid production (linseed oil) causes significantly more environmental damage to an ecosystem due to crop growth and agriculture.
Other paint components can be toxic to those producing and those applying the paint. Although biocides are necessary, some can be carcinogenic or mutagenic and are best avoided. Some biocides can also release VOCs, even when you purchase a water-based paint, which is why no-VOC formulations are best.
The easiest way to determine which paints are best for the indoor air quality of your home is to study the manufacturer’s claims on the can. Evidence of independent third-party certification is the best way to ensure the claims are genuine (such as the ecolabel scheme run by Good Environmental Choice Australia). A lot of brands available on the market offer low-VOC or no-VOC alternatives, with several taking the extra step of attaining third-party certification to demonstrate that they’re environmentally preferable. Most will cost the same and give the same end result as standard formulations.
Next time you’re standing in a hardware store, staring at a wall of colour chips and sheen options, try to narrow down your decision by choosing only environmentally-preferable paints. They’re healthier for you, better for your family, and better for the environment as well.
Emma Lloyd is the Communications Officer for Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA), which runs Australia’s only independent, not-for-profit ecolabelling program. GECA helps people choose products and services that are better for the environment.
Images of RockCote and Wattyl paints