Color Your Home Green

by Deity on August 22, 2006

By the Union of Concerned Scientists
Jly 2006

Since you already devote a lot of thought to choosing the right color and finish of paint, stain, or varnish, don’t forget to consider the product’s environmental impact at the same time.

The most significant ingredients in this regard are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nine percent of the airborne pollutants that form ground-level ozone—smog—come from the VOCs in paint. The EPA advises caution when using products that contain VOCs because exposure to these compounds can cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment.

In addition, many oil-based products contribute to further environmental damage because they are derived from petroleum. Extracting and processing this non-renewable fossil fuel contributes to air and water pollution.


  • Milk paint is the most environmentally benign paint choice, but also the most expensive. Made from milk protein and natural pigments, it is an excellent option for furniture and small rooms.
  • Low- or zero-VOC paint is the next best option. Water-based paints are composed of 5 to 10 percent VOCs, compared with oil- or solvent-based paints, which generally contain 40 to 60 percent VOCs. The nonprofit organization GreenSeal has created standards for low-VOC paints that are more stringent than those set by the EPA: a maximum VOC level of 50 g/L for flat paints and 150 g/L for non-flat paints. If the VOC level is not displayed on a product’s label, ask the retailer or manufacturer for a material safety data sheet.
  • Natural waxes and oils such as vegetable oil, beeswax, or carnauba wax are good alternatives to petroleum-based products.

What you do with your finishing/decorating products once your project is finished is a critical yet often overlooked decision. Follow the tips below to greatly reduce the environmental damage these products can do:

  • Hang oil-soaked rags to dry in a well-ventilated location. Once dry they may be laundered for re-use.
  • Paints containing lead, cadmium, chromate pigments, or mercury preservatives should be disposed of as hazardous waste.
  • Water-based paints and small amounts (less than a cup) of solvents or solvent-based paints and coatings can be allowed to evaporate outside, then placed in the garbage. Larger amounts of solvents or solvent-based paints should be disposed of as hazardous waste.
  • Stains containing wood preservatives are considered hazardous waste.

Related Links
EPA—Volatile Organic Compounds

EPA—Remodeling and VOCs

Healthy Home Plans—Non-Toxic Paint

Green Seal—Wood Finishes and Stains (pdf)

St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste Management District—
Potential Household Hazardous Waste Products

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