The Ultimate Guide to Eco-Friendly Paint Projects

Experts break down what to buy and tips to try for low-waste DIYs.

In many ways, painting is an inherently eco-friendly activity. When you paint something—whether that is a room or a secondhand dining table—you are making it new and extending its life. However, there are many ways we can strive to make our painting projects more earth-friendly. We talked to the experts to get their tips for less wasteful ways to paint. Let's get painting.

Avoid the VOCs

You've probably heard that you should buy a low- or no-VOC paint, but you may not know what that means or why it's important. VOCs are "volatile organic compounds"—basically, the gases that a product emits, which are unhealthy to breathe. Nicole Gibbons, the founder of Clare, a direct-to-consumer paint company, explains that there's a big difference between the designations of low- and no-VOC, which are terms that are regulated by the EPA: "Zero" means up to 5 grams of VOCs per liter and "low" is up to 50 grams per liter. "That's actually quite a big difference," she notes. While Gibbons says the low-VOC products would be fine for exterior use, her company developed a zero-VOC product because "people care more than ever about the air that they're breathing, especially when you have children in your home." So look for the "no-VOC label" for anything you'll use indoors.

Open the windows while you paint

It's more about health than sustainability, but Gibbons shares that it's always a good idea to open windows and doors to the outdoors when you are painting an interior. This helps fresh air circulate in, so you and your family aren't breathing in the VOCs that are in the paint.

Try a "natural" paint

While the low- and no-VOC paints are better than conventional paint, they are still entirely synthetic, and there are more "natural" products you might consider. Decorator Peter Dunham custom mixes white and "Barn Red'' powdered paint pigments from Old Fashioned Milk Paint to create his signature pink walls. The powdered paint comes in paper bags and you mix it with water when you're ready to paint, but be warned: Dunham cautions it's a tricky product to work with. Brooklyn-based interior designer Laura Baross recommends Earthborn Paints, which are water-based and use no oils or acrylics. Lime wash coatings, like Portola Paints's lime wash, are another more organic wall finish to consider.

Water-based is best

It's unlikely that you'll find much oil-based paint on the market today. But if you're debating between an oil-based product and a water-based one, the water-based wins out because there is no need for mineral spirits or other chemical solvents for cleanup. Water-based alkyd paints are a good choice for places you might have used oil-based paints in the past.

Sample to avoid color mistakes

Test the color on your wall before buying a whole room's worth of paint. This will prevent you from buying a color you don't like (and therefore don't use). Gibbons suggests seeking out peel-and-stick paint samples, which are less wasteful than small sample pots of paint; her company, Clare, offers them for all their colors, but you can also order peel-and-stick samples for Benjamin Moore, PPG, Sherwin Williams, and Farrow & Ball through

Eco-Friendly Paint Project Tips: paint chips
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Order only what you need

You know what's really not sustainable? All those cans of paint that are going to waste in your utility closet, basement, or garage. One way to significantly reduce waste is to make sure you don't overbuy when you shop for paint. Use your manufacturer's coverage calculator to figure out how much paint you need for your project.

Buy in bulk

"For larger projects, we recommend ordering paint in 5-gallon buckets can help cut down on packaging and waste," suggests Emma Pugliares, marketing director at ECOS Paints, an eco-friendly paint line. Not only will you reduce waste upfront, you might even be able to reuse the 5-gallon bucket, whereas a standard paint can is nearly impossible to upcycle or recycle.

Skip the disposable supplies

Steer clear of painting starter kits from big box stores and flimsy plastic drop cloths, which are all landfill-bound after one use. Instead, opt for a canvas drop cloth, a heavy duty roller and tray, and sturdy brushes that you can use again and again.

Invest in the best

In addition to choosing reusable tools over disposable ones, you should also invest in the highest-quality tools you can afford. A premium paint brush will last much longer than the cheapest one you could find at a dollar store. Likewise, a higher-quality roller cover can be rinsed and used again. "If you amortize the costs across the lifetime of paint projects, you'll end up saving yourself money in the long run," adds Gibbons.

Be meticulous with your cleaning

Those high-quality brushes and tools will last longer if you take care of them. Always clean your tools right away and never let paint start to dry on the tools. Really rinse brushes until the water runs perfectly clean through all the bristles to ensure you don't find the brush hardened and unusable the next time you go to paint.

Use what you've got—and borrow liberally

Before you run out to buy supplies, take a look around your own home to see what you might be able to use: An old sheet can protect furniture while you paint, old towels, or ratty T-shirts can be used as rags, and I bet there's a plastic tub in your recycling bin that you can clean and use as a hand-held paint pail. Likewise, ask your neighbors if you can borrow supplies. My family has managed to squeak by without a tall ladder thanks to the kindness of neighbors.

Don't waste your leftovers

You should keep a small jar of your wall color for touchup, but if you end up with gallons of paint you don't need, the most responsible thing to do is to give them to someone who will use them—and do it ASAP before the paint begins to degrade. There are some charities like Habitat for Humanity and Global Paint for Charity who may be in your area and want your paint, but I've found the best way to rehome half-used paint cans is to offer the paint for free on sites like Craigslist, Facebook, or your local Buy Nothing group. You would be surprised how many people are grateful to get a small quantity of paint to finish a project!

Dispose of old paint responsibly

If you have old dried-up paint or half-used cans that are starting to deteriorate, don't just toss them all into your regular trash, and never pour paint down the drain! Latex/water-based paints can usually be dried out and disposed of in regular household trash, but oil-based paints, spray paints, and paint thinners all need to be saved for a hazardous waste day or taken to a special facility. Check with your municipality for the protocol.

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