What’s the Greenest Can of Paint?

Reader Contribution by Philip's Perfect Colors
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Photo by Fotolia

Reposted with permission by Philip’s Perfect Colors

What’s a VOC?

VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) are the chemical ingredients in paint that evaporate into the atmosphere as the paint is drying. Government agencies (EPA in the U.S.) define what constitutes a VOC, and this differs depending on which continent you reside on. Europe uses a different definition of what can be labeled No-VOC or Low-VOC than does the United States. Europeans calculate VOC including the water in the paint, whereas in the U.S. VOC’s are calculated by measuring only the solids in the can. This results in a more stringent VOC regulation in the U.S.- even if the stated VOC’s on a can are the same as its European counterpart. There are also some ingredients used in European paints that are not classified as VOC’s in Europe but are classified as VOC’s in the U.S., for example, texanol. So there is debate as to what constitutes a VOC in and of itself.

“NO” vs. “LOW”

What is the definition of a No-VOC versus a Low-VOC paint? The test used in the U.S. to measure VOC’s is EPA test 24. Test 24 is accurate down to about 5 VOC grams per liter. Below this it is unable to accurately measure the VOC content of any particular ingredient or the paint overall. So it is impossible to state that a paint is No-VOC without acknowledging that this testing method is, at that level, approximate. Low-VOC paints are generally accepted to have below 50 VOC grams per liter by definition. These are generally speaking more accurately rated coatings because they are above the 5 grams per liter accuracy threshold. It is important to consider that the quality of the coating is as important as the actual VOC rating. If a Low-VOC coating lasts twice as long as a No-VOC coating, then you may spend more time, money and ultimately release more VOC’s into the atmosphere by using the paint with fewer VOC’s.

Is color a VOC?

No, color is not a VOC per se, although the colorants used in paint do contain some VOC’s. Color comes into the VOC debate when we consider how often we paint. Is it not more environmentally friendly to make color choices that we are going to be comfortable with over the lifespan of the paint coating? Often times in a desire to be trendy we may choose the latest fad colors only to grow tired of them before the room really needs to be repainted. If we pick colors that have a lasting appeal we can minimize the amount of painted used overall, thus reducing the net impact to the environment. Remember it is not just the paint but also the manufacturing and shipping processes that contribute to the carbon footprint of any can of paint. Therefore, the greenest can of paint is the one that we don’t need to buy.