Greenwashing & Informed Paint Purchases

If you purchased paint recently, you most likely came across the term known as VOC. It stands for Volatile Organic Compounds. During the painting process these are the chemicals being released into the air. They are harmful to both the atmosphere and our indoor air quality. Most manufacturers claim that their own products have less of them, or zero VOC content. Painting contractors added this new term to the trade lingo as the new trade buzzword in blogs and sales meetings. VOC don’t exist on paint alone. They are in carpets, new furniture, adhesives and other new construction materials.

As a concerned consumer, should you trust the claims of the paint manufacturers? How would you verify if the VOC levels listed on paint can labels are legitimate? You don’t want to be a victim of greenwashing, you just want to make environmentally smart purchasing decisions. Greenwashing is everywhere today as every company claims to be green and eco-friendly. Even fast food companies and big oil corporations are jumping on the green bandwagon. Unfortunately, most of us are not chemists and paint companies don’t want to tell us what’s in a can of paint. So what are we supposed to do?

A good place to start is to look for independent certifications. They all test for different things and some are stricter than others, but they are a good place to start. As always, the onus is on the consumer to decipher through what these certifications mean. Here is some information about most of the common green labels.

Zero VOC paint does not mean that paint is harmless

It’s a good idea to take all recommended precautions and allow for ventilation during painting. If spraying with zero VOC paint wear a proper respirator as recommended. There are still dangerous chemicals in paint and most of them don’t have to be listed on the label. For example, most paints contain fungicides and biocides. these dangerous chemicals are used to prolong the shelf life of the paint and make the paint film resistant to mildew. There is at least one zero VOC paint from a major manufacturer that contains crystalline silica. This chemical was tested on laboratory rats and is carcinogenic.

There is regulatory bias toward chemicals harmful to the atmosphere and not towards chemicals affecting the indoor air. Ammonia and acetone are very dangerous chemicals. Yet, they are exempt from regulations as they are not classified to be VOCs.

Universal Colourants make colour toxic

One of the main reasons painters paint is to introduce colour in our living space. Colourants are added to the “tint base” to create different the colours we want. The problem with most colourants is that they are high in solvents and they are not waterbourne. The moment the unsuspecting consumer ads colour to the paint, the paint is not zero VOC any more. Depending how dark the shade is, it is not even considered to be low VOC. Some manufacturers, like Benjamin Moore, created a new system of waterbourne colourants to solve this problem. These colourants have been used for a few years now and the paint quality has not been compromised.

One of the many paints claiming to be zero VOC is the ‘Harmony’ line of paints by the Sherwin-Williams Company. A tinting base is a paint that cannot be used without adding colourants. Claiming that a paint was zero VOC then adding universal colourants that are high VOC did not make any sense. In 2011, Benjamin Moore, a major competitor and a manufacturer of waterbourne colourant system, challenged these claims to the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
Their recommendation to the Sherwin-Williams Company was to“modify or discontinue advertising claims that the ‘Harmony’ paint line is completely free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).” (New York, New York, Jan. 18, 2011).

The Manufacturing Process of Paint

It takes a lot of energy to manufacture paint and there is a lot of waste created in the process. To make paint you need ingredients derived from raw materials. The raw material need to be secured, processed and then transported to the manufacturing facility. For example, a main ingredient of paint is titanium dioxide. Some paints contain up to 25% of it.Titanium dioxide needs a lot of work to purify it and make it a useful ingredient. Acrylic binders and colourants are petrochemicals. As such, they require a lot of energy to process so that they are useful for manufacturing. Most of these raw materials are not abundant in nature and they do not derive from renewable resources.

The manufacturing plants themselves create pollution from emissions. There is a lot of waste being created during the process. Some paint companies are taking measures to reduce their ecological footprint of their manufacturing and logistics divisions. Consumers have the right to ask about these measures before spending their money in a responsible manner.

Avoiding the Greenwashing

Coatings today are definitely less harmful than they used to be in the past. There is still a long way to go before declaring paints safe for the environment and the consumer. General knowledge and the right eco information can help us avoid  the best greenwashing attempts by paint manufacturers.