Paint it green?
Jane Turner considers the environmental and health impacts of indulging in a little DIY makeover.
Everybody’s doing it and it’s all the fault of those TV makeover programmes. But giving your house a new lick of paint may not be as simple as deciding which colour to go for. Not if you don’t want the environment and your health to suffer as a result.
This report assesses some of the environmental claims behind both conventional and ‘natural’ paints which are used to decorate walls and ceilings (emulsions). It does not cover metallic or masonry paint, woodstain or varnish, although some of the companies featured also produce these.
Natural or synthetic?
Paints usually contain pigment (colour), a binder or resin (carrier and a glue for the colour), solvent to aid application and a dryer. In ‘natural’ paints, these materials tend to be plant-based rather than synthetic. Synthetic ingredients, such as the vinyl and acrylic used in most conventional emulsion paints, tend to be by-products of the petrochemical industry. Plant based ingredients come from processes which are less damaging than petrochemical-based synthetic processes.
The ‘natural’ paint movement began in Germany towards the end of the 20th Century in response to concerns about the impact of modern chemical paints on the environment and health. There are now many brands of ‘natural’ paint on the market which claim to be both safer to use and kinder to the environment than conventional products.
Of the seven brands featured in this report, four are made in Germany (Auro, Livos, BIOFA and earthBorn) whilst three are made in the UK (Nutshell, ECOS and Green Paints).
Not all ‘natural’ paints are the same. Some contain no solvents, while others just contain fewer than conventional paints, using natural materials instead. They may use turpentine or d-limonene as a solvent alternative to white spirit. Others may be VOC free but use other synthetic binders and resins. Two companies in this report, Auro and Nutshell, claim that their paints are completely petrochemical free.
Linseed oil and casein can replace vinyl and acrylic plastic binders, and chalk and clay are sometimes used as fillers instead of titanium dioxide. All the natural paint companies in this report used titanium dioxide in some of their products.
Natural paints are often coloured with natural earth and mineral pigments.(2) With Biofa and Nutshell paints, you need to add natural pigments to white paint to get your chosen colour.
Natural paint ingredients
Produced by pressing the oil from the seeds of the flax plant, usually boiled to decrease drying times. Used as the binder in linoleum and many paint and varnish products.
Used for centuries in traditional wall paints, renders and mortar. It’s the product of heated limestone and is the forerunner of modern cement.
Natural solvent for paint. Distilled from the pine tree, a renewable and biodegradable source. Turpentine is a far better alternative to petrochemical solvents such as white spirit which contain toluene and xylene, both known carcinogens.
A natural solvent derived from citrus fruits, such as oranges, lemons and grapefruit. Produced by distilling the oil extracted after pressing the fruit peel.
Natural earth and mineral pigments
Used to colour paints and lime washes and some renders. Pigments are extracted, cleaned and milled; some mineral pigments are heat-treated to produce different colours. Others include ochre, umber and sienna.
Natural calcium carbonate, used in various wall paints and lime renders as an extender and filler. Clays of various types can also be used for this purpose.
Casein is derived from milk, and has been used as a natural binder in paint for many years.
A benign substance which is used as a fungicide; i.e. it stops the paint from ‘going off’.
A natural performance
Of course, the least ecological product of all is one which doesn’t work. Unfortunately, some of the ‘natural’ emulsion paints tested by Which? in 2003 were not as durable or stain-resistant as standard paints.(2)
The chemicals in ordinary paints can contaminate the environment. For each ton of paint produced, the resulting waste can be anything up to 30 tons. This waste can be toxic and doesn’t degrade naturally. Emulsions produce less waste than gloss or varnish, but can still cause damage.(2)
Vinyl acetate binders, which may be found in conventional vinyl emulsion paints, can damage lungs, liver and blood, are skin irritants and possible carcinogens.(5) Vinyl binders also become statically charged and cause painted surfaces to attract dust, which can be a problem for allergy sufferers.(5)
In 1989, the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer found that professional painters and decorators faced a 40% increased chance of contracting cancer, and went so far as to classify painting and decorating as a ‘carcinogenic’ activity by definition. In Denmark, ‘Painter’s Dementia’ or ‘Solvent Dementia’ is a recognised industrial disease caused by excessive exposure to solvents and other chemicals.(5) Although home DIY enthusiasts are clearly at less risk, the study nevertheless raises legitimate concerns about the use of toxic chemicals in the home.
According to Construction Resources, studies have shown that the indoor environment is now up to ten times more polluted than the external environment. The use of synthetic paints is said to contribute to Sick Building Syndrome.(5)
Titanium dioxide may be used as a white pigment and to improve the coverage or ‘opacity’ of the paint. But titanium dioxide has a significant environmental impact, leading some of the alternative paint companies to offer a choice of paints either with or without titanium. In energy terms, titanium dioxide has the biggest impact on the environment compared to the solvents and binders. This is borne out by the Eco-Label criteria which found that the four environmental problems to which paints contribute the most are:
• petroleum consumption for the production of titanium dioxide, resins and solvents
• global warming through emissions of CO2 and VOCs resulting respectively from titanium dioxide production and from solvent paint application
• atmospheric acidification due to CO2 and sulphur from titanium dioxide processing
• discharges of waste into water due to titanium dioxide processing.
An additional factor not considered in the Eco-Label criteria is habitat destruction. Titanium dioxide is a non-renewable resource which is relatively scarce and some areas that it is mined from, such as Madagascar, have unique habitats.(6)
Solvents and VOCs
One of the most important issues relating to household paint is that of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), especially in gloss paints.
All solvent-based paint, whether natural or synthetic, contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Solvents are used to keep the paint in suspension until applied. After painting the solvent evaporates and leaves the dried paint on the surface. This evaporation can contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and smog which can contribute to global warming. Ozone can irritate the mucous membranes of the respiratory system, causing coughing, headaches and eye, nose and throat irritation.(6)
In the late 1990s, B&Q voluntarily started labelling its own brand paints with their VOC content and set targets for VOC reduction in paint products. Between 1996 and 2003 these developments resulted in an estimated 45% reduction in the VOC content of its paint products.
Since then, the paint industry in the UK has also adopted the labelling scheme but on a voluntary basis. The scheme uses five categories from ‘minimal’ VOC content to ‘very high’:
0% - 0.29% = minimal
0.3% - 7.99% = low
8% - 24.99% = medium
25% - 50% = high
over 50% = very high
An EU Paints Directive limiting the amount of solvents that can be used in paints will take effect from January 2007 with tougher limits being enforced from January 2010. However, the targets are less demanding than the ones B&Q set and many natural paint companies already meet the 2010 target. In order to avoid confusion, B&Q has now changed its labelling definitions to match the less stringent EU ones but it says it will not let this dilute its policy and target commitments or stop it from continuing to challenge and improve its environmental performance.
Natural paint wars
In 2002, the Green Building Store complained to the ASA that ECOS’ use of the word ‘organic’ was misleading. The complaint was upheld becuase there is no standard for certifying paint. ECOS said “they used the word “organic” to convey that their paints were non-toxic and environmentally friendly”. ECOS still calls its paints organic but the ASA told the advertisers to make plain that “organic” was purely a trademark and that no industry recognised standard for organic paints existed. However, there is no mention of this on its website and on its FAQ page in answer to the question “Why organic?” ECOS says, “All ECOS products are free of pesticides, free of herbicides and entirely non-toxic.” In its turn, ECOS has made many complaints about adverts using the term ‘natural’ when the products have contained synthetic ingredients. All its complaints have been upheld.
The European Eco-Label for indoor paints and varnishes has only been applied for and granted to one paint in this report – earthBorn Claypaint. The Eco-Label guarantees:
- Limitation of air pollution (VOCs) by solvents
- Reduced sulphur emissions during production of titanium dioxide
- Reduced hazardous waste from by- products of titanium dioxide production
- The absence of heavy metals and alkylphenolethoxylates (APEOS) and other substances harmful for the environment and health.
Vegans should be aware that casein is a common ingredients in paint, especially natural paint because it is an alternative to the use of plastic binders. It is derived from milk proteins and is commonly used in emulsion paints. Other animal ingredients used by the paint industry include beeswax and shellac but these are more commonly used in wood treatments and varnish. ECOS and Green Paints do not use any animal ingredients in their products, according to their marketing materials. Neither company lists its full ingredients on the web but we know that ECOS uses synthetic binders instead of casein, as may Green Paints.
Re-Paint the town
An estimated 80 million litres of paint, enough to fill 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools, is stored in homes and garages or just thrown away. This paint tends to be stored and then disposed of in landfill.(10)
Never pour leftover paint into drains. Contact your council about recycling or disposal, offer it to friends, or donate it to social projects such as Community RePaint, which collects paint for community groups, voluntary organisations and charities.(3) Community Re-Paint has a network of over 70 schemes across the UK. Check out the website to find your nearest scheme.(10) See www.communityrepaint.org.uk or tel 0113 200 3959.
What's in the Best Buys
|Auro 321 emulsion
|Auro Casein wall paint
|Nuts Eco emulsion
Where to buy natural paint
A growing number of retailers in the UK stock natural paints. A small selection is listed below.
Green Building Store, 11 Huddersfield Road, Meltham, Holmfirth, West Yorkshire HD9 4NJ Tel: 01484 854898 www.greenbuildingstore.co.uk Order online.
Villa Natura Ltd, 45 Gloucester Street, Brighton BN1 4EW Tel: 01273 685800www.villanatura.co.uk Website lists stockists of Biofa paint and includes ingredients listing.
The Green Shop, Cheltenham Road, Bisley, Stroud, Gloucester GL6 7BX Tel: 01452 770629 www.greenshop.co.uk
Stocks a wide range of paints and finishes including Green Paints, earthBorn and Auro. Order online.
Available online from The Green Shop (see above). Auro paints are also available from www.auro.co.uk whose website includes product information sheets showing ingredients for each product.
The Earthborn Paints website (www.earthbornpaints.co.uk) lists stockists and includes ingredients listings. Also available online from The Green Shop (see above).
Order online from www.nutshellpaints.com where you can also find the ingredients listing.
Livos paints and ingredients listings are available from thewww.ecomerchant.co.uk website.
Order online at www.ecosorganicpaints.co.uk or by phone on 01524 852371
1 Which? March 2004
2 Which? April 2003
3 Which? April 2006
4 Decorative coatings and the environment – a consumer guide: British Coatings Federation, 1997
5 Natural paints and finishes – Construction Resources, 17/5/06
6 Paints and Ecology by Neil May, 11/5/05, Natural Building Technologies website http://naturalbuildingproductscouk.ntitemp.com/ecology_paints_article.htm
7 Auro website (www.auro.de) viewed July 2006
8 Earthborn website (www.earthbornpaints.co.uk) viewed July 2006
9 EU Ecolabel website viewed July 2006– http://ec.europa.eu/environment/ecolabel/index_en.htm
10 Community Repaint website viewed in July 2006 (www.communityrepaint.org.uk)
11 Green Building Digest - Interior Decoration, Spring 1999
12 Green Building Digest - Paints & Stains for Joinery, March 1995