A stack of old paint cans in the basement is as common as a gaggle of children at a zoo. Sometimes those cans are there for good reason. Maybe you want to be able to touch up the exterior paint of your home if it gets damaged during a storm, or the interior paint after it gets dinged moving the furniture around. But sometimes that paint is sitting there because the homeowner does not know how to dispose of it. Here is some good news: Paint is fairly easy to reuse or recycle in a responsible matter. It may cost you some money (depending on the type of paint) or it may cost you nothing at all (depending on where you live). But, with a little research, you can get it to a good final resting place — and out of your basement, where it can be anything from a kid hazard to a fire hazard. We also have some tips for reducing the likelihood that you will have a pyramid of cans in your basement after your next painting project.

What is paint?

paint-recycling.jpgPaint is made by combining a pigment (the color) with a binder (the substance that keeps the pigment in place). The typical can of paint will also contain a solvent, which thins the paint and makes it easier to apply, and several other additives that do things like help the paint dry faster and resist mold and fungi. Latex-based paint (also called acrylic paint) and oil-based paint are the most common household products on the market. Paint is chock full of additives that can adversely affect the environment and human health. Latex paint contains crystalline silica, which can damage your lungs if it becomes airborne and is inhaled. Oil-based paint contains solvents that can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and other symptoms if inhaled. There is some evidence that long-term exposure to these chemicals can cause even more adverse health effects. In addition, older paints often contain lead or even mercury, both of which are extremely dangerous. It is important to dispose of paint carefully and correctly.

Reduce the amount of paint you buy

The first “R” in the waste hierarchy is reduce, and there are definitely ways to you can reduce the amount of paint you buy. Plenty of major paint manufacturers, including Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams, have paint calculators you can use to determine how much paint you need for a particular project. Not sure what color you want to paint your living room or new baby’s bedroom? Rather than going out and buying a bunch of paint, try a product like Wall Makeup, which allows you to mix and sample dozens of different paint colors yourself. It will save you money and reduce the amount of paint you must dispose of. Another smart idea in the reduce category is to reduce the amount of yucky stuff in your paint. Products that are low in VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and other toxins are very common these days. They are more expensive, but it is worth the extra cost, both for the impact on the environment and the impact on your health.

Put paint to reuse

There are plenty of ways to reuse unwanted paint as well. Secondhand home improvement retail stores like Habitat for Humanity ReStores often accept paint. Habitat has retail stores all over the country; visit the organization’s website to find a store near you. If you live near Atlanta you can donate your paint to Global Paint for Charity, which sends it to churches, hospitals, orphanages and other places overseas that can put it to good use. All kinds of nonprofits that develop housing, run homeless shelters or own other properties can sometimes use paint for their buildings. Check with your favorite charity to see if it is interested.

PaintCare makes paint recycling easy

If you happen to live in Oregon, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont or Minnesota, you are in luck: You can recycle all of your paint quickly and easily thanks to PaintCare, a product stewardship program managed in collaboration with the paint industry. In states that have adopted PaintCare’s standards, most retailers are also drop-off sites for all types of paint. You can leave it with them for safe recycling at no charge. PaintCare participants recycle paint in several different ways. Reusable paint is given to Habitat for Humanity ReStores or processed for reuse through programs like MetroPaint in Portland. Some of it is exported overseas, where high-quality American paint is a coveted commodity. Paint that cannot be recycled through one of these methods is often burned in special incinerators designed to generate energy. While not technically recycling, this does prevent retailers from sending any paint to landfills.

How to recycle paint in other states

Recycling programs in states without PaintCare are more hit and miss. New Orleans residents can take their old paint to The Green Program for reuse and recycling, and Atlanta is home to a company called Atlanta Paint Disposal (although it is unclear whether it recycles paint or simply disposes of it safely). Oil-based paint must be treated as hazardous waste and taken to your local household hazardous waste facility. Latex paint, on the other hand, typically does not have to be treated as hazardous waste. It can be thrown away as long as the paint is completely dry and the can is not full (different jurisdictions have different rules about how full the container can be). Leave the lids off the cans to let the paint dry out, or add an absorbent material like kitty litter to get the paint to dry faster. Then the can and the paint can go into your trashcan.