Eco Friendly Paint: What it is and what it isn't

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Eco Friendly Paint: What it is and what it isn't

Now, more than ever, it's important to be aware of the impact the products we buy might have on our families and the environment.

But, if you’re about to decorate your home, and you’re looking for the safest, most eco friendly paint on the market, you may well be confused. 

There are so many factors to consider, options to choose from, and questions to ask. 

Read on to discover the truth about “eco friendly paint” and why this very ambitious term is, in fact, a complete misnomer.

Some "eco friendly" paints are more eco friendly than others

If you have ever read George Orwell's prophetic novella, Animal Farm, you will be familiar with the phrase, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Well, a similar concept can be applied to paint, and we think it's high time the paint industry acknowledged that all paints are harmful, but that some paints are indeed more harmful than others.

In other words, paint can never be truly eco friendly. 

Perhaps a better phrase to use for paint designed to cause minimal harm, is "eco beneficial." By this, we mean that while paint adds huge benefits and value to our lives, we also have to accept that it causes harm to the planet. All we can do is take steps to modify it, so that it causes the least possible harm to the environment and our health.

This can only be achieved through a fine balance of all the variables involved. Let's take a look at what these variables are.

Volatile Organic Compounds

Benefits: VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are found in all manner of everyday products, foods (citrus fruits, vinegar, and tomatoes, for example), as well as naturally-occurring processes. Their purpose is to aid fast evaporation - for example, they help to release acids when fruits are decomposing.

Through a similar process, when you spread a brush loaded with paint across a wall, the VOC chemicals evaporate to make a wet wall harden and dry. The lower the VOC level the less well paint will evaporate and solidify. This means paints with lower VOCs take longer to fully dry, and quality can be compromised unless other chemicals or petroleum-based oils are added to the paint to prevent this. 

VOCs can also help to prevent mildew, as well as extending the shelf-life of paint products.

So, VOCs do actually have some beneficial properties in the natural world, as well as in our manufactured world.

Harms : Most manmade VOCs are more potent than naturally-occurring VOCs, because the chemicals they contain pollute the atmosphere and can even be harmful to our health - they give off vapours that can irritate the lungs, triggering conditions such as asthma, allergies, and COPD, for example. VOCs in paint typically contain carbon and chemicals such as methylene chloride, benzene, and formaldehyde. 

HOW TO IDENTIFY A VOC

 TYPE OF VOC
CHEMICAL PREFIXES
& SUFFIXES
EXAMPLES
Hydrocarbons ane, ene, yne Ethane, Methene, Propane, Acetylene
Alcohols ol Methanol
Aldehydes aldehyde Formaldehyde
Ketones one Acetone
Esters ate Sulfate
Amines amines Butylamine, Pentylamine
Sulphates bromo, chloro, fluoro Bromide, Chlorobenzene, Fluoromethene

VOC pollutants are what cause the potent smell of a freshly painted room - the VOCs are released into the air as you paint, and as the paint dries. This is why instructions on paint products advise that you work in well-ventilated areas.

There is currently no way to completely eliminate VOCs in paint without having to add other, equally nasty chemicals. This is why a low or no-VOC level does not necessarily mean that a paint is more eco friendly than a paint with a higher level of VOCs. 

"VOC-free” does not necessarily mean that a paint product is completely safe for humans, animals or the environment. Paint that claims to be 100% VOC-free may contravene the UK Government’s guidance on green claims, according to paint industry body, The British Coatings Federation. Although the VOC content in most paint products claiming to be VOC-free is negligible, manufacturing processes could cause unintended traces of VOCs - for example, when washing natural ingredients. 

Another issue is that it takes more coats for no-VOC paint to achieve the same results as low VOC paint. This means that it can release more VOCs per square metre than a higher VOC product.

Many paint products labelled “odourless” and/or “VOC-free” actually just mask the VOCs, but the masking process simply converts VOCs into SVOCs (semi-volatile organic compounds). SVOCs can be at least as harmful to health as VOCs. They linger in the air for longer, as they evaporate much more slowly. 

When it comes to labelling paint products there are many inconsistencies in statutory requirements around the world. In the UK, only the VOC level of the base paint has to be stated on the product label. These measurements are typically taken before the paint's tint or any other chemicals are added, many of which can contribute more VOCs. For example, light paint tints can add anywhere between 5 - 20g/L, and dark paint colours as much as 300g/L. 

Until we manage to find a way to make VOC-free paint without having to add other harmful chemicals, we have to settle for making paints with as low a VOC level as possible instead. 

We can compare low and no-VOC paints to unleaded petrol - it's better, but still not good.

How RPFP offsets this harm : We have reduced the VOC levels in our paint to 22g/L (the legislation states that anything below 50g/L is acceptable for interior paints). We could have reduced it further, but then we would have had to add more chemicals. 22g/L is as low as we can go without using any additional chemicals. This is our benchmark. 

Low VOC waterborne paint typically takes much longer to dry, lacks durability, and can need more coats for full coverage. This is where Radical Plastic Free Paint differs. 

Our waterborne, oil-based paint is a hybrid - it is as durable and long-lasting as oil paint, while possessing greener credentials due to the water solvent. It’s also stronger, and it grips better than other waterborne paints. 

At The Positive Paint Company, we only manufacture plastic-free matt paint. One reason for this is that currently it’s not possible to manufacture gloss paint without either doubling the level of VOCs (thus, doubling the harm to the environment), or adding lots of questionable chemicals. In fact, many of the water based paints being marketed as 'environmentally friendly' actually contain more chemicals than oil based paints. 

We are actively researching and testing alternative innovative methods which may enable us to produce plastic-free, low VOC gloss paint (minus the additional nasty chemicals) in the future. Watch this space! 

Plastic Resins

Benefits : Latex paints that combine water with acrylic polymer (plastic) resins are inexpensive, fast-drying, durable, washable, and often cover in one coat. When suspended in a water solvent, they contain fewer VOCs than oil-based paints which means they’re considered less hazardous to our health.

Harms : This all sounds good for the consumer but it comes at a cost to the environment since latex / acrylic paint is not biodegradable, and it contributes to the global microplastics pollution problem - particularly ocean pollution. The bottom line is that we believe no paint containing petroleum based synthetic plastic should ever be labelled as “eco paint” or “eco friendly paint.”

Paints containing plastics are also not very breathable as they create a barrier that traps air on the wall, which can lead to mould and other problems.

How RPFP offsets this harm : Our paint is 100% plastic-free. We never use petroleum based plastic in our resins. 

ocean pollution caused by microplastics

Plastic-free and low on VOCs

You may now be wondering whether it’s possible to produce paint that is both plastic-free and low on VOCs? The answer is a resounding yes! And we have done just that.

How do we do this? 

Here at The Positive Paint Company, we modify conventional alkyd resins to remove the most harmful bits. We do this by replacing petroleum-based oils with mineral oils made from soya. We then suspend the modified resin in water. This process removes the need to add any synthetic plastics at all.   

There are other smaller, independent paint brands like us who are developing novel ways of removing plastics from paint, while keeping noxious gases to a bare minimum. Some manufacturers are now replacing plastics with graphene, while others are starting to develop plastic-free resins from sustainable plant-based materials.

Searching out and using plastic-free paint is a minor change we can all make, without compromising on durability or quality. There really is no need to put plastics in paint!

Oil-Based Resins

Benefits : Oils suspended in a petrol-based solvent are much more durable than water-based resins, and can be used for outdoor applications, as well as in gloss paint used for interior trims. They also last up to four times longer on your wall than waterborne paints, potentially making them more sustainable and eco friendly. Furthermore, hardly any oil-based paints contain plastic.

Harms : Resins that are a mixture of crude oils and plant oils contain a higher level of VOCs. 

How RPFP offsets this harm : Radical Plastic Free Paint is made with a modified alkyd resin, in which the non-sustainable crude oil is replaced with the more-sustainable Soya oil.

Biocides

Benefits : Biocides prevent paint made with plastic resins from going mouldy.

Harms : Biocides can cause breathing difficulties and other serious health problems for humans, animals and marine life. Pregnant women, small children, and people with serious chronic illnesses are particularly at risk from exposure to biocide chemicals.

One well-known paint manufacturer tried producing odourless, no-VOC, plastic resin, waterborne paint without adding biocides. However, they were soon overwhelmed with complaints from customers that the paint had a very strong odour resembling the smell of cat urine. 

This happened because the acid chemicals they used to suppress the paint's odour caused the plastic-based paint to decompose when the biocides were removed. Removing biocides simply won't work in plastic-based paints because acid cannot be added without the paint becoming rancid. The manufacturer soon had to revert back to putting biocides back in their paint. 

The bottom line is that you can't make paint without using at least some chemicals. However, the paint industry in general tends not to talk about this too much. Regulators insist that any biocides, as well as a small number of other harmful chemicals have to be included on paint labels. These include:  

  • Nonylphenol Ethoxylate
  • Chloromethylisothiazolinone
  • Methylisothiazolinone 
  • Hydroxyphenyl Benzotriazole 
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

Certain other chemicals also have to be declared somewhere on the packaging, but paint manufacturers can get away with listing these in less obvious places. It’s also currently the case that not every ingredient in paint has to be listed by law (including plastics).

How RPFP offsets this harm : We don’t use biocides in our Radical Plastic Free Paint, as we do not use synthetic plastic resins.

Waterborne Solvents

Benefits : Suspending resin in water can reduce harmful VOCs by about two-thirds.

Harms : Because of their extremely slow evaporation time, paints with waterborne solvents can cause surfaces to become mouldy, unless harmful biocides are added to the mix. 

In a survey we conducted recently, 98% of respondents said they believed "water-based paint” was the most eco friendly type of paint. The phrase "water-based" is, in fact, an inaccurate description. A paint's "base" actually refers to the resin material used. Paint manufacturers use water as a solvent in which to suspend the resin, rather than as a base in and of itself. A solvent is the element that causes evaporation, so that paint can dry. So, a more accurate term to describe paint which has been suspended in water is "waterborne."

Until recent times, manufacturers used petrochemical solvents as they evaporate quickly, causing paint to become very hard and durable. Due to concerns about the potential harms caused by the VOCs given off by petrochemical solvents, most manufacturers have since switched to producing paints with water solvents instead. Typically, plastic resins are suspended in a water solvent to reduce the level of VOCs.

However, a number of additional substances, preservatives and emulsifiers are needed to blend the oil and the water, to make the paint stable. Some of these can be so aggressive that highly purified isoaliphates offer a better alternative, despite these being petroleum-based. Isoaliphates are harmless solvents which are commonly used in the food, cosmetic, and medical industries.

When we told our survey respondents that most waterborne paint contains a plastic-based resin, as well as biocides, they were shocked - they had no idea that plastic vinyl resins form the base material of this type of paint, or that it contains harmful chemicals.

Although the vast majority of paint manufacturers make their paint in this way, most focus on describing their products as "water-based" without mentioning the plastics. And, of course, we are all familiar with the harms caused to the planet by plastics.

Similarly, any paint that claims to be water-resistant must necessarily contain additional chemicals. It's difficult for consumers to identify these though, since there is currently no requirement to declare information about plastics or certain chemicals on the product label.

Summary: Despite the lower levels of VOCs being the only environmental benefit, paint manufacturers are able to claim that their waterborne paints are eco friendly. But the bottom line is that paint cannot be truly eco friendly if it contains plastic and harmful biocides. This is a message that does not yet seem to be cutting through. Currently, it is also possible for some odourless waterborne paints to be labelled VOC-free or solvent-free, even though they contain high levels of SVOCs (semi-volatile organic compounds).

How RPFP offsets this harm : We have removed all plastics and biocides from our waterborne paint and we use natural oils soya oils, which do not cause the paint to become rancid. It is simply no longer necessary for waterborne paints to contain plastic or biocides.

Mineral Paints

Benefits : Natural mineral paints typically contain fewer VOCs than the acrylic and latex paints which currently make up the lion’s share of the paint market. They are also more breathable. There are several types of mineral paints to choose from nowadays, depending on your budget and the nature of your project. Some of the most popular mineral-based paints on the market include clay paint, lime paint, and paint made from graphene.

Clay-based paints are pleasingly breathable and give good coverage over old paint coats and plaster. Clay’s cool surface temperature makes clay paint ideal for hot and humid environments.

Lime-based paints remove excess carbon dioxide from the environment, which improves indoor air quality and reduces your home’s carbon footprint. They also offer very good wall coverage.

Graphene-based paints offer a high-quality alternative to synthetically formulated paint, with excellent coverage, durability, and flexibility. Graphene-based paint is nicely breathable, and it also helps to regulate the moisture in the air by acting as a dehumidifier.

Harms : The biggest problem with using natural minerals in paint is that it encourages unsustainable mining practices. Clay, lime, graphene, and chalk are all mined minerals. However, our earth only has so much of these, and mining for minerals is a destructive process. So, some of the ingredients in mineral paints may be natural, but over using them is not sustainable since we cannot replace them once they are gone. 

Another very important factor is that it’s impossible to know whether most mineral paints contain any plastic. Many mineral paint manufacturers do not mention that the minerals are an additive to, rather than a substitute for the plastic resin. Waterborne mineral paints that claim to be washable are very likely to contain plastic resins or additional nasty chemicals (even clay and chalk paints). 

There is currently no legal requirement to state whether a paint product contains plastic, but if a product doesn’t say it’s plastic-free, it probably isn’t. We only know of one other manufacturer who states outright that their paint does not contain plastic. All the other mineral paints on the market in the UK at the time of writing are labelled as “eco friendly”, nevertheless.

We believe it’s time for new legislation. We think consumers deserve to know for certain whether or not the paint they are buying contains plastic. To this end, we believe there should be new legislation requiring paint manufacturers to state on their labels, either: “THIS PAINT CONTAINS PLASTIC,” or: "THIS PAINT DOES NOT CONTAIN PLASTIC.” It’s the only way to solve the issue.

How RPFP offsets this harm : Our paint contains natural oils (mostly soya oil) but it also contains the mined minerals: titanium, talc and a limestone which we use discriminately.  Our natural oils are produced using sustainable farming methods. Our resins are also 100% plastic-free - and we make sure we tell you so on our packaging!

What about organic paint?

When used with reference to paint, the term ‘organic’ refers to chemical compounds containing carbon. This should not be in any way confused with organic food or organic farming methods, which mean entirely different things. Any paint company using the term "organic" to market their paints should not be trusted. 

Plastic Packaging

Benefits : Plastic is inexpensive and lightweight. 

Harms : Plastic is not biodegradable. Even though it is becoming increasingly possible to recycle some plastics, it is generally very difficult to recycle empty paint tubs. Most recycling facilities won’t accept them as they are contaminated with a non-biodegradable substance.

How RPFP offsets this harm : Our packaging is 100% plastic-free - all the way down to the sticky tape we use to seal our boxes. Our paint tins are completely recyclable too. 

Cardboard Packaging

Benefits : It is 100% recyclable and biodegradable. It’s also durable and sturdy.

Harms : All the negative and unsustainable effects of deforestation. 

How RPFP offsets this harm : We source recyclable cardboard packaging made from timber grown in sustainable NFC woodlands, and packing made from recycled carboard.

Carbon Footprint

While paint companies may boast low levels of VOCs and natural ingredients, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re making environmentally friendly paints.

For example, their products may still contain plastics, or their packaging may not be recyclable.

One or more of the companies involved in the manufacture, distribution, or transportation of the paint may have a terrible record on carbon emissions.

And what about the raw ingredients? How and where are they sourced? Can we be sure that all the links in the supply chain subscribe to best practices?

Environmentally aware consumers are advised to seek out responsible suppliers with robust policies for reducing the environmental impact of their day-to-day operations. As a general rule, the fewer links in the supply chain, the better.

How RPFP offsets this harm : Whenever we can source soya oil from certified local farms, we do so. Unfortunately, we do not yet produce enough soya oil here in the UK, and this does need to be addressed. The paint is manufactured and produced right here in the South West of England.. This minimises energy consumption and reduces our carbon footprint as much as possible.

Our Eco Credentials

Although we cannot completely mitigate all the harms caused by paint, we can and should completely avoid buying paint that contains synthetic plastic. It is perfectly possible to modify the ingredients of paint to exclude plastics, and still be left with a professional, durable, beautiful paint. 

While we acknowledge that no paint can ever be 100% eco friendly, we believe that our Radical Plastic Free Paint is as sustainable and environmentally friendly as paint can be - and certainly more so than 99% of other paints on the market.

 FEATURES & BENEFITS OF
RADICAL PLASTIC FREE PAINT

  • 100% plastic-free biodegradable paint
  • Plastic-free packaging (right down to the sticky tape!)
  • 100% free from biocides and odour suppressors
  • Minimal VOCs
  • Manufactured and disturbed from the South West of England 
  • Renewable plant-based materials
  • Minimal use of mined materials
  • Vegan friendly (we do not use animal-derived ingredients, and we never test on animals)
  • Completely recyclable tin containers
  • Box and packaging sourced from timber grown in sustainable NFC woodlands or recycled paper
  • Radical Paint is a joy to work with, it's hard-wearing, and it gives a beautiful finish!

    If enough people purchased only plastic-free paint for just one month, the big brands would notice and perhaps they might follow suit. But, because the process of making paint plastic-free is a disruptive technology with significant costs attached, the corporations aren’t currently incentivised to change their practices. 

    Only two things can force their hand - either the introduction of new legislation, or increased consumer demand for plastic-free paint

    We invite you to join us in our mission to make paint plastic-free as soon as possible!

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