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‘Green’ paint easier to define than to find in a store

By BECKY GILLETTE

It may be easier to define green paints than it is to purchase them. While there are green paints on the market, it can be difficult walking into a paint store and getting good information about which products are the most green, said Dr. James Rawlins, associate professor of polymer science at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM).

“What most people do is they go and ask for green paint at a store,” Rawlins said. “But often the sales people aren’t as knowledgeable as the consumer about that particular product and most often that product is not readily available on the shelf in a store. Often people use a sniff test to decide if it is a green paint. They think if they don’t smell anything, it’s a green paint. That is not always an indicator. It is common that if three weeks after painting, you still smell something, it probably isn’t as green as you wanted, but that could be misleading.”

He suggests looking for two things with green paint. Are the raw materials renewable or produced from made from some sort of renewable resources and are the products low in VOCs (volatile organic compound emissions)?

Rawlins said he is disappointed when he sees new green paints at environmental or technical conferences, but then can’t find them at the store easily.

“People want to buy it and go on the same day, and that isn’t easy,” he said. “If you are looking for something environmentally friendly, you have to plan this in advance unless you live somewhere like Seattle where people are demanding that it stays on the shelves. But just about any paint will be greener than ten or 20 years ago from all major manufactures and many specialty producers.”

Today in general most paints are safer and more environmentally friendly than in the past as they have fewer VOCs. Rawlins said you want something to smell good when you apply it, but paint shouldn’t be fragrant. Neither should it be offensive.

“It is important to know there is a definitive benefit when you find a good performing green paint,” Rawlins said. “But you have to hunt for them even at the counter of a specialty coating store where sales people are supposed to know and understand technology. The sales person often doesn’t know which ones are environmentally friendly and green. Most sales people want to sell you what they sold you last year and the year before. Usually consumers have to educate themselves to find out which paint is green, has good performance and is environmentally friendly. Most people don’t have the time to do the research. They show up at store and ask for paint that is environmentally friendly, and are often guided to the major product that specialty store sells.”

Water based paints have become popular because they are easy to clean up. You just wash the brush off in water and don’t have to use a solvent to remove paint spills or stains on the hands. But alkyd or oil-based paints have been used for more than 100 years, and are made from vegetable oil, not petroleum oil, hence the confusion. Rawlins said oil-based paints are natural green products and yet often are delivered in petroleum solvents, hence the strong smell of solvents for weeks after application.

“So, they are very green from that perspective, but they are very often delivered in VOCs that are from petroleum sources,” Rawlins said. “That doesn’t make sense to a consumer, but from a technical basis it is easy to see why we do that.”

Now it is difficult to even buy oil-based paints because they are harder to clean up. But they do have their place. When you do wood coatings, oil-based paints are often recommended because they last longer. Rawlins said oil-based paint manages water better typically and water-based paints manage UV or sunlight better.

USM’s Polymer Science department does research on green paints. Commercial products can have hundred ingredients in them, so the process of selecting paints gets complicated quickly.

“We are on the polymer side so we study one aspect of the material,” Rawlins said. “Our goal is to deliver understanding or knowledge that allows people to design new materials and provide pathways for performance, green and good for the environment. The coatings industry is very artful. In order to put science to it, you have to strip out some of the variables. Paint production companies have engineered themselves into a corner, in a sense. We are a bit of crossroads. We need to understand how we get performance to understand how to make materials that would be new and perform in a more environmentally friendly manner or have similar or equivalent performance without some unintended consequences.”

Consumer Reports has done reports on the best performing and environmentally friendly paints. And help in selecting green paints is available online at the website for EPA. Google green paints EPA. EPA recommends looking for products meeting paints and coatings standards and ecolabels recommended by EPA.

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