Smarter painting

A lick of paint can liven up tired decor. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
A lick of paint can liven up tired decor. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
Picking up a paintbrush can have its pitfalls.

Thousands of chemical compounds are used in paint products as pigments, extenders, binders, solvents and additives.

The World Health Organisation has reported a 20% to 40% increased risk of certain types of cancer, particularly lung cancer, among professional painters.

And even the home renovator can suffer headaches or have their skin, eyes and airways irritated if subjected to prolonged or high exposure.

Some of the most harmful chemicals found in paint are volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

According to, a website run by the Department of Building and Housing, these are chemicals that become airborne, and therefore breathable, at room temperature and have been linked to asthma in young children.

Solvent-based products, such as oil-based enamel paints and some varnishes, can release significant levels of VOCs during application and sometimes for years after. Water-based products have lower solvent emissions and are less harmful to use and dispose of.

It's not all bad news, though. Environmental Choice New Zealand (ECNZ), a labelling programme endorsed by the Ministry for the Environment, says paint formulations have made major strides environmentally in the past decade.

About 25 million litres of decorative paint is sold each year in New Zealand, almost all of it manufactured domestically, and the overwhelming majority is water-based.

All paints certified with the ECNZ planet-and-tick seal have low levels of potentially harmful volatile compounds.

Assessments are carried out by independent experts, the standards are raised as technology lifts the bar for environmental performance and one of the criteria is "fit for purpose", meaning the paint must do what is claimed for it.

The seal also shows that manufacturers have taken "whole life cycle" issues into consideration.

Resene's "paintwise" scheme collects unwanted paint and packaging for recycling, Dulux has a paint wash-up system, Wattyl has worked with asthma sensitivity and Paint Plus has developed special formulations for hospitals.

Properly-stored paint can last for years, Resene says. Cover the top of the paint can with plastic wrap, place the lid on securely and store upside down, away from children and from extreme heat or cold.

But the best way to avoid paint waste is to measure carefully and buy only what you need.

If you do have leftover paint, use it for touch-ups, smaller projects or add another coat to your paint finish for extra protection. Otherwise, donate it to schools or art groups, making sure it is in the original container with the label intact.

Otago Regional Council environmental services manager Martin King says the council gets "quite a few" complaints about paint in waterways and the dumping of paint tins in riverbeds.

People washing down equipment often don't think about the paint they are putting into the stormwater system ending up in streams, but the council sometimes fields calls about the "Leith or the Kaikorai turning blue or green".

Dunedin City Council manager of water and waste services John Mackie says cleaning up brushes over a gully trap or washhouse tub is all right when only small volumes of paint are involved, but larger amounts should be allowed to dry out in the tin and the solid material taken to a landfill.

Containers should not be put into recycling bins as they may still contain paint residue, but instead taken to the hazardous goods collection area at the Green Island landfill. The same goes for turps and thinners.

Unwanted paint and paint containers can also be dropped off at Resene Colorshops in Dunedin, Oamaru and Queenstown. Resene product is free to return and there is a small charge for other brands.

Placemakers stores accept all liquid acrylic and oil-based paint as well as oil stain free of charge, but not empty containers. In both cases, check with staff for more details.


• Save unnecessary washing up by wrapping your paint brush in plastic wrap. This will prevent the paint drying on the brush for at least an hour - ideal for lunch breaks. Similarly, put your roller into a plastic bag and tape it around the handle.

• A plastic pail with a tight-fitting lid is ideal for the short-term storage and transport of brushes and roller sleeves. Fill the pail about half-full with water so the brushes are covered. This will save you from having to clean equipment whenever work is interrupted.

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