What dangers do regular paints pose to the environment? Many conventional paints (as well as many household substances) contain harmful chemicals, such as formaldehyde and plastics, which are released into the home environment. These carbon-based chemicals, called Volatile Organic Compounds, aka VOCs, are measured by the amount – or levels – emitted into the air, and the lower they are they better. ‘High levels of VOCs are bad news as they can cause all sorts of issues, such as triggering asthma, nausea and other allergic reactions,’ explains Phil Robinson from Paint the Town Green. They can also continue to be emitted for up to five years after the paint has long dried.
In 2010, the EU put stricter limits on VOCs in decorative paints, so brands now highlight their low percentage levels. Zero VOCs, however, are impossible, says Robinson. ‘This isn’t technically possible as all substances emit a small amount of VOCs. What they mean is that they register so low on the scale that according to some criteria somewhere this qualifies as zero. It’s not zero, it’s just very low,’ he explains. It’s important to recognise that a paint will always release something into the air, so study the ingredients to discover just how much.
So what determines an eco-friendly paint? There is no clear and consistent definition of what constitutes ‘eco’ or ‘natural’ paint. Some brands with a low level of VOCs will then muddy their environmentally-friendly claims by adding acrylic, vinyl and PVA to bind the ingredients together, or to achieve a certain finish. Even those that have strong eco credentials may use synthetic pigments to create certain colours – again, it’s important to read the small print. Eco paint pioneer Edward Bulmer, founder of Edward Bulmer Natural Paint, defines eco-friendly paints as such: ‘It should mean that a product has no detrimental effect on the environment or society. Modern paints are stretching credulity claiming this when they are derived in large part from petrochemicals. They are not “water-based” so much as they have water added – and it may not be in large amounts. Natural paints are products driven by ethical principles that ensure responsible sourcing, controlled processing, no hazardous waste and carbon neutrality in their manufacture.’
What else is there to consider? The carbon footprint of your paint. Smaller brands produce smaller batches, therefore, they generate less waste. One example is March and Son in Lewes, which uses locally sourced ingredients. Founder Simon March explains, ‘We make a variety of paints but our most sustainable is our linseed paint, which is made using local linseed oil from pressed flax seed together with local Sussex chalk and alabaster. The pigments come from a variety of places in Europe, including ochres from France and Italy and oxides from here in the UK and the Netherlands.’ These paints are sold from a tap to reduce waste. Customers are then encouraged to return the used containers for the next person.
How do I find out more information? For those interested in learning more about eco paints, the Ethical Consumer carries in-depth guides and articles on its website.
What are the alternatives? The range of eco-friendly paints is growing, here’s a breakdown of what to look out for..
Limewash paint Made from slaked lime (generated from limestone), it is cured for almost a year to thicken, with a small amount of linseed oil added to help with wall application. Francesca’s Paint specialises in limewash paint made in Italy with organic and mineral colour pigments added in London.
Clay paint A water-based solution with natural clay pigments, it has naturally low VOCs. It’s proven to be very effective on porous walls in older properties that are susceptible to damp. Earthborn was the first paint company in the UK to gain the EU Ecolabel licence. It produces acrylic- and oil-free clay paint and varnishes.
Casein paint Made using milk proteins rather than toxic petrochemicals. Emery & Cie, a Belgium brand, offers paint that contains up to 40 per cent casein plus organic binders, organic or non-organic pigments (depending on the colour) and 15-25 per cent water.
Plant-based paint This is produced using pigments found in nature and solvent made from water and plant oil. Edward Bulmer Natural Paint was founded by the interior decorator when he struggled to source good-quality paints using natural ingredients for his projects.
Mineral paint Made using natural colour pigments that are taken from the earth, rather than synthetic alternatives. Paint the Town Green offers a decorating service within London and the surrounding counties and stocks a paint collection created by interior designer Nicky Haslam.
Are there any other brands I should know about? The numbers of paint brands with green credentials are growing. Here’s a small selection of other notable names…
Nordfärg Awarded the Nordic Swan (eco label for Nordic countries) and EU Ecolabel, it uses Sweden’s renewable power and Iceland’s geothermal heat to produce its paints. nordfarg.com
Eicó Plant-based paint manufactured in Iceland and Sweden using geothermal and hydropower energy. It’s shipped to the UK using spare space in shipping containers. eico.co.uk
Lakeland paints Paint for walls, floors, wood and metal surfaces and varnishes that are non-toxic, odourless, solvent-free and contain no animal products. lakelandpaints.co.uk
This article appeared in ELLE Decoration June issue
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