Brush up on paint

Americans use three million gallons of paint every day -- more than a billion gallons every year.  That could fill a lake 20 feet deep, four miles long and one mile wide.

Everyone faces painting decisions sometime in their lives, and ther's more to it that choosing a color.  What kind of paint you use and what you do with it when you're done has a direct imipact on the environment.  Even how you clean the brushes matters.

"Paint" refers to a range of coating materials separated intotwo categories.  If paint thinner or mineral spirits needs to be usesd to clean up brushes and hands, the paint is oil-based.  If water is used for clean up, the paint is latex or water-based.

Oil-based paint and paint products -- thinners, solvents, stains and finishes -- are classified as hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency.  Oil-based paint can damage the enviroment andhuman and animal health.  If the paint is thrown in the trash in liquid form, it could eventually enter the groundwater.

Lead was banned from paint in 1973 and mercury in 1990.  But the average American has about four gallons of old paint sitting around in basements and garages.  Collection programs still turn up lead paint, and mercury will be common for some time to come.  Before using leftover paint on interior surfaces, read the label on the can carefully for mercury content.  If you're unsure, call the National Pesticide Telecommunications Network at 800-858-7378.  They can tell you whether or not your paint contains mercury.  The long-term solution for eliminating lead-based paint is to remove it and replace it with latex or water-based paint.

Using it up

Some areas have come up with creative ways to "share the wealthy" of unused paint.  Fore example, Monroe County Solid Waste Management District has a "paint bulking" program that collects and mixes together large amounts of latex paint.

About 45 percent of what's collected can be used.   Dirty and moldy paint is properly disposed.  The remainder is strained and blended.  No matter what shades get mixed in, the results come out about the same shade of beige.  It has about a one-year shelf life and is distributed to community groups and the general public.

Some communities also have paint-exchange programs where people bring reusable paint to trade or give away.  Santa Monica, CA alone has recirculated more than 600 gallons of paint this way.  You could also donate unused paint to a church, school or community group.

Disposing of what's left

If your leftover paint is water- or latex-based and dries out before you can use it, it's all right to dispose of it with your other trash.   If the latex paint isn't entirely dry or it gets moldy, it can be left open outside to evaporate.  Stirring in a absorbent, such as cat litter, speeds up drying.   Depending on the amount of paint, the evaporation process could take several days to several months.

If the paint is oil-based, it's a bigger disposal problem because the volatile hydrocarbons it contains could ignite.  Never let it sit open to evaporate -- the fumes are toxic and pollute the environment.  Many oil-based paints are also pigmented with toxic metals like cadmium.  So use up the oil-based paint you have.  If you can't, your next best choice is to take it to a hazardous-waste facility for disposal.

Never dispose of any kind of paint or paint product by pouring it on the ground or into a swere.  Do that, and the hazardous materials in the paint could make their way into the water supply.  Brushes contaminated with water-based paints should be cleaned in a sink so the paint residue will make its way to a waste-water treatment facility.  Solvent from an oil-based paint brush clean-up shouldn't be dumped down the drain.  The solvent can be saved and reused for future brush cleanings.

What about other paint products?

Paint strippers, thinners, varnishes, stains, turpentine and glues contain toxic chemicals that can cause air and water pollution and may present health risks.  These products can also irritae skin.  Safe alternatives for removing paint, stains and varnishes from skin include water, baby oil, butter or margine.

When removing paint from wood and metal surfaces, consider alternatives to chemical strippers -- sandpaper, scrapers, heat guns or water-based strippers.  If you must use a more hazardous product, but only what you can use up and minimize waste.  If you have some left over, share it with a friend.   Landscapers, graphic artists, furniture refinishers, small auto-body or auto-repair shops, or paint contractors may also be able to use these leftover products.

If you must dispose of these products, do it at a household hazardous waste collection center.  If a collection program isn't available, label the product clearly, seal tightly and keep away from children and pets until used up.

Next time around...

Free paint disposal guide

"Paint Disposal....the Right Way" is available from the National Paint and Coating Association, 1500 Rhode Island Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20005

SOURCE:  The Earth Works Group.  50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth.  Berkeley, Earth Works Press, 1989.