Eco Friendly Painting and Environmental Practices

What makes a painting contractor environmentally responsible? Is it their choice of paints, tools and materials? Are you a green painter by simply offering your customer the zero VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) paint option? There is more to being a true eco-friendly painting company than just choosing the right paint. To truly reduce their environmental footprint, contractors have to, among other things, address their water usage, waste disposal, transportation, even office practices and recycling.

The Emergence of the Green Consumer

The past decade has seen a growing awareness and trend toward living an eco-friendly lifestyle and ‘going green’. While the rise in environmentalism really started to gain momentum back in the 1970s with government regulations and community movements, we have now come to a point where almost everyone is taking steps to lessen their ecological footprint.

We’re now conserving water & electricity, lessening our reliance on harmful chemicals, and generally leading our day-to-day lives with the environment always in the back of our minds. Businesses everywhere are also following suit, with products and services now being designed and delivered not only with their features, benefits, cost, and quality in mind, but also their eco-friendliness.

Terms like ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ have become buzzwords on the web, talk shows, commercials and even product packaging. Not a day goes by when one doesn’t see an advert for a product/service that claims to be environmentally friendly or ‘sustainable’. The overuse of these similar sounding terms by companies has led to the practice of green washing. This is a marketing tactic adopted by companies who often mislabel their services or products as being safe for the environment.

Therefore, it is necessary to understand the true meaning of being ‘eco-friendly’ – doing so will enable our business to implement practices that will lead to a healthier planet and an improved quality of life for its inhabitants. As customers gain better awareness about things like carbon footprint and using fuel-efficient cars, businesses too need to keep up with these changes. Homeowners are turning towards using sustainable and eco-materials to improve their surroundings; using eco-paints is just one such practice.


Consumers prefer green products
Green labels for eco conscious consumers

As an environmentally-conscious painting contractor, we encourage all our clients to use eco-friendly paints. Apart from paints, as a business, to the best of our abilities, we take all steps necessary to reduce our carbon footprint.

This resource guide delves deeper into the subject of eco-friendly painting and what it takes to be a green business in the true sense. The dangers of conventional paints will also be discussed. We hope this becomes a handy reference for our fellow contractors and painters operating in the GTA.

What it takes to be an Eco-Friendly Painting Company

Being environmentally conscious is not just limited to using green paint – a company has to embrace the philosophy wholeheartedly. Eco friendly practices need to be followed – be it in the choice of paints or the way wastewater is disposed of. As we become more and more aware of our carbon footprint, a number of options are available – for a business that is just starting out, some of the suggestions may not be viable but in the long run, they should be adopted:

Paint Related Practices

  • Use the leftover paint. If possible make it a habit to use premixed colours and “standard whites” for ceilings and trim. When there is leftover paint keep it until the next job that uses the same colours or the standard white.
  • Dispose without harm. It is not a good idea to throw paint, thinner or solvents down the drain. The best way to rid of them is to pack them in secure cans and drop off to a hazardous waste disposal site.
  • Before disposing paint cans, make sure to air them out. If there’s a small amount of leftover paint, leave the can open in a well-ventilated place and trash once totally dry. This applies to water based paints.
  • Donate your extra paint to local charities, schools or community groups. A number of cities host a swap/exchange for things like paint. We hold regular free paint giveaway events open to our community.
  • Eliminate waste. If half or more than half a gallon of paint is leftover, use it for another project. If possible, similar colours can be mixed together and used again. Offer the savings to the customer and explain the reason for doing it. When you do mix different paints, make sure to label the cans properly.
  • When zero VOC paint is not available, at least use a lower VOC alternative. Avoid using alkyd based paints if you can help it.
  • Prep instead of primer. Wash the walls and trim with gentle cleaners and some elbow grease. Who knows, maybe you don’t need a stain primer.

Business Practices 

In addition to paint related policies, companies can make a number of decisions in-house, adopting some of the practices below:

  • Painters now do a fair job with choosing low VOC paints, yet when it comes to transportation, it is common practice to use inefficient trucks and vans. At the very least, managers and salespeople can use fuel efficient vehicles.
  • Invest in central storage/shop so that crew leaders and painters don’t have to drive their loaded trucks for long distances.
  • Create incentives for painters to carpool and use the TTC. Ideally, painters can be assigned jobs that are closer to their homes in order to reduce travelling time.  
  • Buy locally made paint, sundries and office supplies – why? To reduce the impact of your ‘transportation footprint’.
  • Hold phone meetings instead of travelling to the office.
  • Use every day green office policies such as printing on both sides of the paper and use recycled office supplies.
  • Appoint the last person leaving the office in charge of turning off the lights and air-conditioning or reducing the heat in the winter.

Recycling policy at the office

It is not only important to conserve electricity and water, but also lessen our reliance on chemicals and lead our daily lives with an understanding of the environmental consequences. Businesses too need to follow suit and deliver products and services that are not harmful to the environment.

The last few years have seen a number of paint contractors operating a ‘green and eco friendly’ businesses. Manufacturers are producing safe and low/zero VOC paints not only for homes but also for maintenance painting and commercial projects. There has also been a noticeable increase of recycled paints for municipal maintenance projects by the City of Toronto.

Contractors truly looking to reduce their environmental footprint, can start well by adopting some of the policies suggested here.

In the following section, we will discuss VOC (volatile organic compounds), their causes and the effect their emission has on the environment.  

What are VOCs and why are they harmful?

Most of us have heard the term ‘VOC’ – they are unsafe chemicals that should be avoided. Paint manufacturers have either completely eliminated their use or there are products in the market that contain very low amounts of VOCs. If you love the smell of fresh paint, you’re essentially in love with the very harmful smell of the dangerous VOCs present in them. Stay away! These chemicals are not just present in paints, they’re in carpets, adhesives, household cleaners and a range of interior building materials. If a product has an offensive smell, it very likely contains them.

How dangerous are VOCs?

VOCs in interior products and commonly used building materials evaporate easily into the atmosphere. In the case of paint, while drying, it releases VOCs into the air. Residential painters should make use of zero VOC paints as much as possible. Most manufacturers offer some type of zero VOC paints but let’s try to understand how paints are damaging our environment.

Conventional paints can be segregated into two categories – they can either be:

Water based: Also known as latex paints, these are low VOC alternatives to solvent-based paints.

Oil based: They include alkyds, a type of polyester that is used in paint as the main resin or as a binder. Oil based paints also use linseed oil, alcohols, esters, ketones, and petroleum distillate as solvent carriers. These are the VOCs that are released while paint is being applied and drying.

Zero VOC latex paint

Damage to the Environment and our Health

The emission of  Volatile Organic Compounds is called off gassing. Apart from paint, the other sources of off-gassing are construction materials like carpets, cabinets, furniture or other household goods. Harmful chemicals are also released from things like plastics and solvents. With paint, the off-gassing process is continuous, starting when paint is applied to surfaces and lasting long after the paint dries.

VOCs react with other elements to produce ozone, which causes air pollution. When ozone enters the leaves and plants through natural gas exchange, plant life is seriously damaged. This damage can be either necrosis or chlorosis. Necrosis is damage to leaf edges, roots and cellular death of the stem. Chlorosis is when leaves do not make enough chlorophyll. Ozone damage can affect crop yields for crops that are particularly sensitive to environmental changes such as corn, peanuts or cotton.

Groundwater can also be contaminated by pouring paint and paint contaminated water into the storm water drainage system. This antiquated practice is illegal but many painters still consider it as common practice. When contaminated water enters the storm sewers, it pollutes our lakes and rivers. In most municipalities this practice is illegal. More information here about disposing paint contaminated water.

While VOCs are harmful to the environment, they have far more health consequences

  • VOCs cause serious health effects such as asthma, respiratory irritation and in some serious cases, cancer. They are also the cause of what is known as ‘Sick Building Syndrome’. Residents and workers in a building complain of headaches, fatigue and discomfort. Most of these symptoms disappear once they leave the premises. A poor indoor air quality affects their quality of life.
  • Health problems caused by VOCs indoors depend a lot on the amount that is present in the air, for how long, and the frequency of exposure. The effects differ from person to person. For example, some people are suddenly affected by them and others who may have inhaled VOCs over long periods of time are desensitized. Individuals that have a known sensitivity to chemicals are affected the most.
  • Benzene is a harmful chemical. It is present in fuel, some oil based paints, furniture wax, etc. It is a known carcinogen harmful to bone marrow, it affects immunity and causes reduced red blood cells.
  • Formaldehyde is another known carcinogen. It is banned from a lot of products but is still present in small amounts in old paints, wood and floor products. It gradually expands and causes discomfort to the eyes, and mucous membranes. Humid environments will speed up its dispersion.

Ultimately, the choice is ours. VOCs are present everywhere – even in products we use on a daily basis. Making the choice for/against them is up to us. Look for products that are clearly marked ‘Zero VOC’. These labels are fairly obvious on paint cans but not so obvious on other interior products. If you are not sure, ask the manufacturer about the ingredients and research the product on the internet. Some organizations choose to get their products/services verified by a third party, to present an evidence of being ‘eco-friendly’.

Green Promise Certification

What can other painting companies learn from Ecopainting?

A number of companies these days proclaim to be eco-friendly. While they may use green paints, that doesn’t automatically qualify them as a ‘Green Business’. A business has to not only use environmentally friendly painting materials but also modify their day-to-day business processes. Recycling, waste disposal and low VOC paints are just a small piece of the puzzle.

To be truly eco-friendly, a painting contractor must follow an environmental philosophy across all aspects of the company. To summarize:

  1. Adhere to best practices and environmental regulations set forth by the regulatory bodies of the government
  2. Measure and estimate spaces efficiently so as to order the correct amount of paint for the job
  3. Donate and reuse leftover paint and minimize waste
  4. Avoid hazardous solvent-based primers. Utilise green cleaning products to wash off stains and surfaces
  5. Recycle everything and anything that can be recycled according to the environmental standards in place. Encourage your painters to recycle their drink and food containers

As we understand more about the environment and how it can be affected by the choices we make, it is important to take incremental steps and keep up with the changes that require a business to be ‘eco-friendly.’

In the painting industry, newer standards dictate what can be considered green or safe. For the longest time, paint manufacturers added lead, mercury and other harmful chemicals to their paint. Once the ill effects of these materials were discovered, rules were put in place to reduce or eliminate their use.

Government regulations and consumer preferences influence the use of safer materials and green processes. To ensure that painting companies paint in the most eco-friendly way possible, they must hold themselves accountable to environmental legislation and constantly innovate. Reducing the carbon footprint is essential not just for the environment but also for the survival of our businesses. We owe it to our workers, our customers and our earth.

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