Plastic in Paint... Why should we care?

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Why should we care about plastic in paint?

The toxic soup of plastics polluting the planet’s oceans and watercourses is one terrible symptom of a devastating crisis that’s been accumulating for decades. But just how bad a problem is plastic pollution? 

A 2004 study led by Professor Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth found that plastic debris, including alarming levels of microplastics, were present in all but one of the world's major marine ecosystems - from the Arctic to Antarctic oceans, as well as along coastlines around the globe. 

“Our work has so clearly shown that microplastics are present in every sample of beach sand, whether it’s in Australia, Asia, Europe, North or South America. We’ve looked in the deep sea, in Arctic ice, in the gut of hundreds of fish from the English Channel, and we’ve found microplastic contamination everywhere.”  Professor Richard Thompson, OBE FRS

It is thought that around eight million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the sea every year. Professor Thompson and his team estimate that there are now over five trillion pieces of tiny particles floating through our seas - equivalent to about 1kg per person globally. And it could take hundreds, or even thousands, of years for these plastics to break down and decompose. 

Plastic pollution in marine environments is a catastrophe of seismic proportions. Fish, turtles, seabirds and thousands of other marine species are being tangled up and suffocated daily. And when sea creatures mistake plastic debris for prey, they ingest harmful microplastics which can cause poisoning, intestinal injury and death.

We all need to do more to prevent further contamination of the oceans - the survival of thousands of species depends on it. 

Of course, we are not advocating an outright prohibition on plastics. They play an important role in modern societies, and banning them completely would be counterproductive. In many ways, plastic has positively enhanced our health and wellbeing - but this has come at a terrible cost to the natural environment and other life forms. 

Increasingly, there are calls for additional measures to ensure that recyclable plastic is only used where there’s no other feasible option, and only where the benefits outweigh the negatives - such as in health care settings, for example. 

There’s a long way to go, but many people are now changing their habits - recycling household waste, repurposing and reusing furniture, avoiding plastic packaging wherever possible, and seeking more natural alternatives to plastic in other ways too. 

Most of us are trying to do our bit. But, of course, we could always do more.

Ultimately, whenever we consume anything, we have to strike a balanced compromise between principles, performance, and price.

Plastic ocean pollution. Underwater bags, bottles, cups, straws

 

We can’t change the world overnight. But we can start taking action to limit the harms we are causing - for example, by making conscious decisions about what we choose to consume. 

We need to drastically reduce or eliminate our use of avoidable single-use plastics - such as plastic bottles, straws, drink stirrers, coffee cups, and shopping bags.

And while we’re at it, we also need to take a good look at plastic-based household paint.

Yes - most paints contain synthetic plastic 

While we’re all aware why we need to recycle household plastics such as food packaging and drink bottles, not so many of us realise that our household paint contains non-recyclable synthetic plastic.

But how concerned should we really be about this? How much of an environmental impact does plastic in paint actually cause?

Well, let’s think about it for a minute…

What happens once a paint product becomes waste? 

Construction site digger yellow demolishing house for reconstruction with dust cloud

For example, what happens to all the plastic paint on surfaces such as windows, doors, walls, and ceilings when buildings are ‌renovated or demolished?

The answer is that when construction companies reuse crushed brickwork from buildings for roads, pavements and drives, or when painted surfaces corrode due to wear and tear, plastic micro-particles break away and eventually enter our watercourses. 

It’s estimated that the microplastics from painted steel surfaces entering oceans every year could be equivalent to 150-225 billion bottles. In fact, some reports conclude that paint is the second-largest source of microplastics in the ocean.

Raising awareness

Many people aren't aware of the negative environmental, ecological, and health consequences that can arise from using plastic-based paint in their homes when decorating. And, because no one has told us that plastic in paint is an issue, most of us continue to use it - millions upon millions of tonnes of it each year.

The current over-simplified mainstream marketing message seems to be that plastic-based paints are less harmful to the environment than oil-based paints. While they are certainly less harmful in relation to global warming (since they typically contain fewer VOCs), the use of synthetic plastic resins effectively cancels out any benefits because of plastic’s contribution to the global marine pollution problem. 

One small action we can all take is to switch from using plastic-based acrylic paints to a more eco-friendly, plastic-free alternative.

Here at The Positive Paint Company, we're on a mission to raise awareness, and to spread the message that there really is no need to continue contaminating the earth and our oceans by putting these harmful plastics in paint!

What are the key components of paint? 

To understand how and why plastics are used in paint, it helps to understand how paint is formulated. 

The principal components of paint include:

The Pigment

Piles of green, orange, red and blue paint pigment powders in glass plate

 

Pigments are the elements that give paint its colour and opacity. They comprise tiny particles that can absorb light in different ways. A paint's prime pigments include chemical compounds such as titanium dioxide, red iron oxides, and chrome green oxides. Extender pigments can be added to increase or decrease the amount of a particular colour in a ‌mixture. These include compounds such as calcium carbonate, magnesium sulphate, and barium sulphate.

The Solvent

The solvent in paint is the liquid in which the paint resin is suspended. Solvents are either organic (made of carbon compounds like crude oils or alchols) or water-based.

The Resin

The function of the resin (commonly referred to as the binder) is to form a stable network that holds the pigment particles together and allows the paint to adhere to surfaces. This, of course, is one of the most important characteristics of the paint and is a great focus of paint manufacturers because it determines the fluidity and ease of application of the paint.

Different finishes call for different resins - for example, it is currently not possible to achieve the sheen of gloss paint without using plastic polymer resins - although we're working on finding an alternative solution here at The Positive Paint Company!

The type of plastic used in a resin will vary depending on the solvent used, but even paints made with water solvents usually contain acrylic polymers (plastics) as resins.

Why does most paint contain plastic resin? 

Good question!

There are several reasons why ‌the vast majority of paint manufacturers continue to use acrylic polymer resins, to the detriment of the planet.

 

 

Structure of acrylic polymer

 

 

On the plus side, plastic-based latex paint is versatile, cheap to produce, durable, crack-resistant, easy to apply, fast drying, water-resistant, and easy to clean. It’s also available in any colour you can think of and covers easily, giving a smooth finish - sometimes in just one coat. It rarely requires a primer either.

But, on the minus side, plastic-based paint contains added chemicals which can be detrimental to our health and wellbeing, and it pollutes the oceans with devastating consequences for aquatic creatures. 

Many people don't realise there are now plenty of natural binder substitutes that work equally well. These days, plastic-free emulsion paint is also durable, washable, and easy to apply - and it looks superb on the wall. 

It may not be as cheap, or as fast and convenient as modern consumers demand and expect - but is it really worth endangering the planet and our own health for the sake of saving a few pounds and a couple of hours?

Why plastic resins in paint are bad for the environment

  • Microplastics released by latex paint resins could take hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years to biodegrade (break down). 

  • Microplastics from paint can leach into water systems and end up in the ocean, where they can contaminate and harm fish and other aquatic wildlife.

  • Man-made plastic has polluted the oceans to the extent that some regions have become uninhabitable for aquatic wildlife, and this has caused serious disruption to the planet's ecosystems. Plastic-based paints and varnishes have caused much of this pollution.

  • There is no effective recycling system yet available for most types of plastic-based paint waste. This means that paint containing plastic resins often ends up in landfill (for example, empty paint tubs), where toxic chemicals leak into the soil and groundwater.

  • Plastic-based paint distribution and manufacturing processes involve vast amounts of energy and chemicals, all of which pollute our environment.

  • Alarming quantities of toxic chemical waste created during the plastic production process are disposed of incorrectly, meaning that much of it ends up in rivers and streams. This waste includes chemical compounds such as vinyl chloride, benzene, phthalates, and formaldehyde. These chemicals have adverse effects on aquatic wildlife, as well as terrestrial animals, and can cause death. Creatures that survive are often left with deformities or chronic disease.
 Sad Muslim woman holding her nose and head because of allergic reaction

Latex paint can also be bad for our health. It is commonly made from units of chemicals such as methyl methacrylate, butyl methacrylate, and polyvinyl acetate. These chemicals can cause irritation of the nasal cavity, throat, lungs, and skin, and they can even cause negative effects on the kidney and liver at higher concentrations.

The solution? Plastic-free paint!

Plastic-free paints are paint formulations containing naturally occurring compounds such as vegetable oils or waxes in their resins, instead of acrylic binders. 

Radical Plastic-Free Paint: a natural oil-based paint

Tin of Radical Plastic Free Paint on Upcycled Bench

Our Radical Plastic Free Paint resin is made from soya oils and other natural minerals. It’s PVA-free, acrylic-free, biocide-free, latex-free, and is 100% biodegradable. It’s also free from all animal by-products, and is low on VOCs, meaning you won’t be breathing in lots of toxic fumes. With a durable, washable finish, Radical Plastic Free Paint can be used on almost any surface - ideal for walls, ceilings, furniture, up-cycling projects, and so much more. 

The term “plastic free” doesn't mean you need to sacrifice your favourite colours either. In fact, far from it! Our Radical Paint palette comprises a beautiful selection of natural shades, offering opportunities to team up neutral base tones with more dramatic statement colours.

The way forward for plastic-free paint

Positive Paint Company isn’t the only paint company manufacturing plastic-free paint. Other small, independent companies have also developed novel ways of removing plastic from their paints. Even the larger paint companies are beginning to include “limited plastic free” products in their ranges.  


Yet the mass marketing of plastic-free paint products is still not happening. Consequently, many people are still unaware this type of paint even exists.

If plastic-free paints are not advertised or displayed prominently on the shelves of DIY stores, how are you, the consumer, meant to know they’re available? 

If you don’t know they’re available, you can’t buy them.

And if you don’t buy them, these new paints will die out - meaning that plastic ultimately wins.

We can’t afford for that to happen.

So, join us in our mission to revolutionize the paint industry, and let’s get plastic out of paint, once and for all!

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