Paint is one of the most widely used materials in the world. Just think about all the cars, walls and buildings which are painted every day all over the world. Paint, in one form or another, has been used for thousands of years and has gone through significant changes over that time. From the earliest uses where the ‘paint’ was just a colouring made from natural materials, right the way through to the 1940s where synthetic pigments and a variety of chemicals were used create an almost endless spectrum of colours, paint has been important.
In 2019 alone it is estimated that the paint and coatings industry in the UK produced 703 million litres of paint. As paint has developed and the use of chemicals has become more prevalent and important to paint, the environmental impact has become far more significant. So is paint damaging to the environment and if so, how?
There are several harmful substances found in paint which are damaging to both the environment and human health. The most well-known of these are VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds, which are commonly found in solvent-based paints. VOCs are known to contribute to air pollution, both during the paint’s production and then when it is being applied to a surface.
For human health VOCs can also be very harmful, this is why you need to be extremely careful when painting indoors with solvent-based paint. VOC exposure can cause eye, nose and throat infections along with headaches. It can also lead to more serious issues such as liver and kidney damage, and some VOCs can cause cancer.
Paint production also contributes to CO2 being released into the atmosphere, and we should all be aware by now of the impact that is having on the planet and global warming.
One of the main environmental issues with paint is that oil is a key ingredient. As oil is a non-renewable resource, this poses a problem in the long term and also in the amount of energy it takes to gather the oil to use. Furthermore, disposing of petrochemical paints is extremely difficult, and if not done correctly can cause significant environmental damage.
What is being done about this?
As more people become aware of the environmental and human health impact of paint, some alternatives have been developed and are starting to become more popular. There are paints which claim to be low VOC options, but they can also give off harmful vapours. However, acrylic paints, which contain less hydrocarbon solvents, are much safer than oil-based paints.
One of the alternatives which has some significant environmental benefits compared to oil-based paint is powder coating. This is a process used to coat metals which uses a dry paint powder. Powder coating is considered a non-toxic form of painting as little to no VOCs are released from the paint. The actual process of coating the metal in paint powder also helps reduce its environmental impact. An electrostatic gun containing an electrode is used with compressed air to spray the target object with paint powder. Because of the electrode, the paint is given a charge, and by earthing the target metal, this helps attract the paint to the metal surface. Any paint powder which does not attach to the metal, this is called overspray, can be collected and used again, providing it has not been mixed with another colour of powder. This makes the process more efficient.
Finally, because powder coating services produce extremely durable coats of paint, it can often reduce the number of times an item needs to be painted or repainted because of chips or cracks in the paint. Some manufacturers are also making paint using different forms of oil. Linseed oil, produced from pressing flax seeds together, has been used with natural pigments to create paint. There has also been a move to have paint sold from a tap. This helps to control the amount of paint which could be wasted.
Overall, it’s clear than the paint industry needs to think about its environmental impact and that some within the industry are already doing so. To make a significant difference in the environmental effects of paint, it equally falls on us as consumers to educate ourselves on the options available to us and try where possible to choose more eco-friendly options.