Plagued with toxic chemicals, microplastics and an abundance of greenwashing, the world of paint has been under scrutiny for several years. However, thanks to the passion, determination and revolutionary innovation of some manufacturers, is the tide turning towards a greener future for the sector?
Photography courtesy of Unsplash
Words by Roddy Clarke
In a document released earlier this year, Edward Bulmer, the interior designer and founder of his own natural paint brand, put out a rallying cry to the industry to come clean about paint. Titled Lifting the Lid, the white paper not only highlighted the stark realities of the problems with household paint manufacturing but also outlined solutions, which he hopes will inspire other brands to follow suit. And, with the industry still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, it is clear the paint industry does have a ‘plastics problem’ and this call to action is very much needed.
As lead binders were phased out of paint production during the late 1900s, due to their negative impact on our health and wellbeing, they were unfortunately replaced by plastic. And, with most household paint now using acrylic binders, it has resulted in a myriad of negative environmental issues, one of which we are only really understanding the harmful impact of now: microplastics.
According to a report by the Swiss research consultancy Environmental Action (Plastic Paints the Environment, 2022), an alarming 1.9m tonnes of paint ends up in oceans and waterways every year, resulting in an estimated 58% of the microplastics found in these natural environments coming from paint. These staggering statistics emphasise the critical nature of the plastic issue within paint, but unfortunately it isn’t the only challenge the industry is facing.
PaintCare UK, an industrywide stewardship scheme for leftover paint led by the British Coatings Federation, states that of the 337m litres of household paint sold in the UK each year, around 56m litres end up unused, of which approximately 98% is poured down the drain or ends up in landfill or incineration. The Royal Society of Chemistry also reports that there are an estimated 50 million leftover paint tins within UK households. So, with these figures a huge cause for concern, what changes are being made?
Photography courtesy of Graphenstone
In partnering with local recycling centres, local authorities, and retailers, PaintCare is hoping to close the loop on the industry, with an ambitious target to reuse, recycle and remanufacture 75% of the current waste levels by 2030. Although the scheme is voluntary – and not a government-backed compulsory structure which would have a quicker impact – it does provide a central framework for manufacturers to take advantage of.
Patrick Folkes, the UK director of Graphenstone, a paint company which manufactures with graphene binders instead of plastic, agrees that the enormity of the leftover paint issue is something which urgently needs addressing. ‘Alongside PaintCare we also work with other organisations such as Community RePaint who offer take-back schemes, as well as MYgroup to recycle our tubs in outdoor furniture programs for schools,’ he reveals. ‘Added to this we also reuse 100% of wastewater within our own manufacturing process.’
With Bulmer focusing his efforts on creating paint from natural materials using a process which he describes as ‘gentle chemistry’, it highlights that plastic-free alternatives are available, while Little Greene launched its Re:mix collection (opposite) earlier this year – made entirely of leftover and unwanted paints. However, looking at the global industry, large-scale action is yet to occur.
Photography courtesy of Little Greene featuring the brand’s Re:mix collection
And, with most companies still not declaring a transparent, easy-to-read list of ingredients on the tin, it can be an ordeal for consumers to decipher, through confusing, technical jargon and a multitude of misleading marketing campaigns. Bulmer goes on to reveal that in raising awareness of the plastics issue, which highlights how the industry remains almost entirely dependent on the petro-chemical supply chain, he received backlash from one of the UK’s leading paint organisations to say he was unfairly challenging the industry.
‘In an increasingly polarised world, if you are not seen as mainstream, you seem extreme,’ he comments. ‘The penny is only just dropping that plant-based polymers can produce high-performance paints presenting a much greener alternative to mainstream options.’
While Bulmer’s approach is provoking dialogue, the resistance against it signals that there is still a long way to go and maybe we are yet to see the ‘true colours’ of the paint world as we know it. The stubborn optimist within me imagines a future where, through the power of community and collaboration, the industry works closer together to find common solutions, resulting in a sector which profits but, as Bulmer concludes, ‘only when it works for both people and planet’.