Making the best paint choice
Three nasty-sounding initials are responsible for that tantalising texta-like smell of fresh paint - VOC, or Volatile Organic Compounds.
VOCs are the culprits behind the heady scent of paint, and they have been blamed for everything from asthma to polluting indoor-air quality.
When it comes to making an environmentally-friendly paint choice, low-VOC paints are climbing to the top of the eco-preferred paint charts in the minds of consumers – but is it the only thing we should consider?
Most of the big paint manufacturers sell low or no-VOC paints, while plant and mineral-based paints are carving a sought-after niche market. “VOCs emit the most strongly when paint is first applied, but can give off gasses for years,” says The Natural Paint Place’s Rick Roberts, who sells a European plant-and-mineral-based paint, which has zero VOC content. “Chemically sensitive people and women who are pregnant are our biggest customers. They are people who won’t risk being in contact with strong chemicals.”
But VOCs are only part of the equation for people to weigh up when making an eco-friendly paint purchase.
“Low VOC paint does not automatically translate into environmental preference,” says Good Environmental Choice Australia chairman Petar Johnson, whose not-for-profit organisation rates products according to their environmental performance.
VOCs may well be considered toxic nasties, but they are often the same compounds and chemicals that allow a paint to be durable, washable and dry quickly and easily.
“Simply specifying low-VOC is not enough – if you have to paint twice as often because the paint doesn’t last, then it’s of no real benefit,” explains Ken Lofhelm, the executive officer of the Australian Paint Approval Scheme.
Lofhelm, who administers APAS certification for paints, says greater environmental benefits occur when paint lasts a long time, rather than simply contains low levels of VOCs. “Some of the Green paints that don’t contain petrochemicals or hydrocarbons look fine initially but we haven’t found any that meet the full range of requirements,” he says, explaining that long-term performance is an important measure of paint quality.
Roberts would disagree, because CHOICE rated his brand of no-VOC BIO paint as number three in a 2004 interior paint test. “Plenty of people think natural paints don’t have the same quality, but it’s just not true,” he says.
Australian Paint Manufacturers Federation director Michael Hambrook says there is no easy, simple answer to allow paint-buyers to choose the most environmentally friendly paint option.
“If it’s a choice between low-VOC paint and one that has lead and carcinogens and VOCs, then most people will buy the first option,” Hambrook says. “Most automobile paints have VOCs in them, but do you want your Commodore to not have paint on it?
Johnson says eco-labelling is vital to help consumers choose materials like paint – America has its Green Spot and Europe has the Blue Angel system while Australia has Environmental Choice Australia labelling. Roberts says such labelling systems force paint manufacturers to pay thousands of dollars to obtain a tick, which means most companies won’t submit their products.
“There are many paints that are the same on price and have the same vibrancy, but they have different environmental profiles. If Australians with an environmental conviction want a product, they should look for our label.”
Johnson says issues like the energy intensity of making the paint, the gycolether and heavy metal content and the ability to easily dispose of chemical products are also important factors to judge an environmentally-preferable paint. “Companies may make the marketing pitch about being environmental, but may not pass on other elements (of the testing process),” he says.
Hambrook says the problem with environmental labelling systems is that not all manufacturers submit their product for testing therefore a tick will not automatically mean there isn’t a better-performing product on the market.
“Unfortunately, what the public have to do is go the extra yard. They have to do their own research. If they are painting the roof of a house, they probably want it to last 30 years and probably won’t want low-VOC paints,” he says.“There is no simple answer.”
So can you be Green and use paints in your house? Yes, according to sustainable materials expert Kirsty Mate, who is also the head of interior architecture at the University of NSW.
“VOCs aren’t the only story,” she says. “How you dispose of paints and the leftover paints in the tin is a big issue.” How often you need to paint, is another. Mate offers these tips for eco-friendly painting: