Green Paint

30th March 2008

… that’s ‘green’ as in ‘eco’…

Jill Glenn takes a look at some of your options for a more environmentally-friendly paint finish.

The idea of eco-friendly paint is naturally appealing. Headline benefits include minimising health risks and reducing the costly environmental impact of one’s home. Sustainability is, rightly, a big buzz-word – so anything that ensures a more responsible manufacturing process and less damaging disposal has to be a good thing, especially in comparison to the conventional petro-chemical based paints with which we’re all familiar.

However. There’s always a ‘however’, and in this case it’s a big one. We’re used to sprinkling our conversations with terms like organic, natural, eco-friendly and green, often with little thought as to their specific differences. Sometimes the semantics are unimportant, – but where paint is concerned it pays to know what you mean and mean what you say, because, apparently, what you see is not necessarily what you get.

The market is surprisingly saturated with paints that claim to fall into one of these desirable categories… ‘surprisingly’ because, as explains, it’s very hard to create a 100% non-toxic, guaranteed non-allergenic, entirely eco-friendly – and completely efficient – paint, even with the careful use of natural ingredients. Gloss paints, especially, are a natural manufacturing challenge.

It’s certainly possible to minimise the chemical risks, though, and to reduce, even to eliminate, some of the adverse effects; there are products on the market that will make you feel better, both physically and emotionally, for buying and using them. It’s just a matter of reading the small print.

So… what should you have on your checklist, and how should you interpret the varying terminology?

‘Natural’ products are derived from minerals, plants or animals – which sounds straightforward, but they may have been farmed, intensively. A paint that doesn’t use acrylics or petro-chemicals may be based on palm oil grown in an area of cleared rain forest. Technically, it’s ‘natural’.

‘Organic’ is another minefield. Its most popular meaning – a crop grown without synthetic fertilisers and pesticides – masks a more scientific one. In chemistry, ‘organic’ means ‘relating or belonging to the class of chemical compounds having a carbon basis’ – and, as oil and petro-chemicals are hydrocarbons, it would be perfectly possible for unscrupulous manufacturers to claim that their chemical-infused concoctions are ‘organic’.

Steer clear, too, of ‘low odour’; tempting as this idea sounds, says that producing it uses ‘a considerable cocktail of potentially harmful chemicals’. It may be marginally more pleasant in the using, or the immediate aftermath, but it’s not an environmentally responsible choice. Moreover, odour-free paints may lead to the under-ventilating of newly painted rooms – meaning that subtle, undetectable vapours can build up unchecked… so it’s not a healthy choice, then, either.

Even the term 'traditional' can be misleading. It may be applied, for example, to a mainstream petro-chemical paint available in traditional colours. Where it refers to a traditional process, the ingredients may include lead: not, according to, the evil that it’s sometimes portrayed to be, but not necessarily what you might expect to find.

Conventional paints are high in VOCs: Volatile Organic Compounds – carbon-based compounds that evaporate easily into the atmosphere. They can be dangerous to both health (as irritants or carcinogens) and environment (contributing to the formation of low-level ozone, and causing damage to crops and plant life). Many well-known brands contain very high levels of VOC-based solvents, so if you’re eco-keen, check the VOC rating on the tin when you’re buying.

There are always compromises to be made, and difficulties to be overcome. Natural products just don’t behave exactly like the synthetic ones – and they tend to be the standards by which we judge, unfortunately. Natural paints generally take longer to dry, for example, so even some eco-responsible manufacturers may use a tiny proportion of acrylic, to increase usability. It’s all about balance.

Overall, natural paint products are probably better (in both manufacture and use) for people and for the planet but the conclusion is clear: where words such as organic, natural and eco-friendly are in evidence you need to read very carefully to see if it really does what it says on the tin.

And, of course, remember: green paints don’t have to be green; they can be any colour you like.…

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