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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Paint Recycling

Air Date: Week of

Terry Fitzpatrick reports on the problems of paint recycling. Disposing of paint safely and properly is expensive; recycling seems like an attractive alternative. Despite difficulties with contamination and cost-effectiveness, a few industrious paint recyclers think that they can make the process pay off.


CURWOOD: Hazardous waste is usually something you want to get rid of. But increasingly, industry is finding that hazardous waste can be recycled. Now people at home are beginning to find out that their hazardous waste, too, can be re-used. A prime example is paint. Millions of partially-used cans of paint clutter basements, storerooms and garages, and when they're finally tossed, municipalities usually have to put them into expensive toxic waste containment. But more and more, despite a variety of chemicals and colors, paint is being recycled. Reporter Terry Fitzpatrick has the story.

(Sound of workers' voices: "It looks like some old paint . . . this is phosphoric acid . . ." fade under)

FITZPATRICK: Once a month in Tucson, Arizona, people line up at the East Side Fire Station to drop off an eclectic mix of household hazardous waste.

MAN: Paint, insecticide, pesticides, just about everything, just about anything that's toxic.
FITZPATRICK: Where'd you get get all this stuff?
MAN: My father-in-law passed away about three weeks ago, and we were cleaning out his workshop.

FITZPATRICK: Hundreds of communities have programs like these, to prevent household hazardous waste from polluting the groundwater near the town dump, or contaminating sewage or septic systems. But many cities are learning that collecting the waste is only half the job. It's expensive to bury the household waste in specially-designed industrial landfills, especially so for paint.

DUXBURY: Over fifty percent of the material that comes into a household hazardous waste program is unwanted paint. So approximately fifty percent of that cost may be associated with what you do with that unwanted paint.

FITZPATRICK: Dana Duxbury is an environmental consultant in Andover, Massachusetts. She sparked the movement to establish household hazardous waste collection throughout the country. Now she's leading an effort to deal with all the waste that's collected.

DUXBURY: And in order to find more economically viable and more ecologically sound ways of managing that material, rather than burying it or burning it, we decided that we would try to encourage the reuse and recycle.

FITZPATRICK: Experts in the paint industry say there's a problem with Duxbury's idea. Oil-based paint contains petroleum solvents, which make it hazardous to throw away. Latex paint contains solvents too, though in far smaller amounts. These solvents are among the things that make paint a much more complex substance than aluminum or glass, and so paint is tougher to recycle. Vance Stogner runs the Benjamin Moore paint factory in Milford, Massachusetts. He doesn't want to recycle paint.

STOGNER: There are a lot of barriers to doing that. One of them is, is that, in fact it's probably the most mentioned one, is that there is really no way of telling what type of contaminants have been added to the can of paint. They could pour pesticides, PCB's, waste oil, whatever you want, and it's really very very difficult to attack. So there's a very very extreme concern with whatever might be coming back as a post-consumer paint ready for recycling.

FITZPATRICK: Despite this difficulty, there has been growing pressure on the paint industry to begin nationwide recycling. Two states, Vermont and California, have restricted the flow of paint into their landfills. So the EPA commissioned Dana Duxbury to lead a summit meeting of paint manufacturers and environmentalists.

DUXBURY: When the paint industry arrived there they were sure that the other people in the room wanted all paint companies to take back all unwanted paint. At the conclusion of the meeting they learned that that was not the objective of the people in the room. But indeed what the paint industry themselves said that if paint was pretested for contaminants, that there might be as many as a third of the paint companies in the country that were non-automated companies that would be willing and able to process old paint in their facility.

FITZPATRICK: It turned out that the technical headache for major paint manufacturers could be an economic opportunity for upstarts.

( VOICE: That's the latex, this is the semi-gloss latex. That's no good . . .)

FITZPATRICK: The Green Paint Company in Manchaug, Massachusetts, sorts cans of old paint one by one. Green Paint's owner, Scott Herbert, says that household hazardous waste programs were making a mistake in the way they collected paint. Most programs pour all the paint into large barrels for disposal.

HERBERT: We want the product in its original container. If you take it all on site, dump it all into a 55-gallon drum, what you'll get is a gray utility paint, whether it's latex or oil-based. The market value of that type of product and the market itself is very limited.

FITZPATRICK: By keeping the original cans, Herbert's company can mix more marketable types and colors of recycled paint. He gets paid by cities to haul away the cans that people bring to collection programs. With this free source of raw material, he can afford the labor costs of sorting the paint. Herbert is the only manufacturer that sorts paint like this. He's sold 4,000 gallons so far, and he's trying to land a contract to supply recycled paint for a major home improvement store, Home Depot. While the collection of paint may fuel the development of recycling at other small factories, the industry is working to remove the concern over paint in the first place. They're using fewer toxic ingredients which will make paint safer to use and to throw away. Environmentalists welcome that change and say avoiding the need to collect paint would be the best solution of all. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry Fitzpatrick reporting.



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