What Qualifies a Paint as “Green”?

As the “green” movement continues to grow, we are seemingly inundated with “green” products and services.  I want to help define green, or eco-friendly, paints and coatings.

I differentiate between paints and coatings, because they are not technically the same thing.  All paints are coatings, but not all coatings are paints.  Coatings come in numerous resin bases.  Some resins include latex, alkyd, acrylic, epoxy, urethane, fluropolymers, and many others.  Each of these resins is designed to handle specific applications.  The use of the appropriate coating is determined by the environment to which it will be exposed.  Deciding factors include durability, color and gloss retention, corrosion resistance, UV resistance, impact resistance, moisture and rust resistance, etc.

With all of these different types of coatings, how is it possible to determine which ones are “green?”

By measuring and limiting their volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.  VOCs are measured in grams/Liter (g/L).  The VOCs in coatings are in the solvents that bind the components of the coatings together and keep it in a liquid state.  When the coating is applied to a substrate, it releases VOCs into the air as it cures (dries).  These VOCs are being released into the air until the paint is fully cured, which can be between 15 and 45 days.  These VOCs are deleterious to both people and the environment.  For humans, breathing VOCs causes brain damage, lung damage, and can exacerbate pre-existing respiratory illnesses.  For the environment, VOCs contribute to greenhouse gases, and ultimately global warning.

Because of the “green” movement’s youth, no federal VOC standards have been established.  However, several organizations have established accepted “green” VOC standards for paints and coatings.  These include the California Air Resource Board (CARB), The Ozone Transport Commission (OTC), The Master Painters Institute (MPI), and The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).  All of these organizations are creating guidelines for sustainable construction in their respective region.  However, The USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program is widely accepted as the national standard in “green” building.

When applied to paints and coatings, the LEED program allows each type of coating acceptable VOC limits to earn its “GS-11″ rating.  For instance, interior flat latex paint must contain fewer than 50g/L VOC content to be considered “green.”  Many manufacturers offer zero-VOC interior paints.  With some types of coatings, like alkyd-based polyurethanes and varnishes, it is more difficult to remove the VOCs without seriously compromising the product performance.  For this, LEED allows these coatings a higher VOC cap (<350g/L).

Do “green” coatings perform as well as “regular” ones?

For the most part, Yes they do.  In many cases, due to advances in technology, the “green” coatings out-perform their “regular” counterparts.  In commercial, residential, and even industrial applications, the low-VOC coating options are often better performing options.

If “green” paints are better than regular paints, then why don’t more contractors use them?

There are two main reasons why many contractors don’t use “green” paints and coatings:

1)  Cost - Many of these “eco-friendly” paints are more expensive than their “eco-unfriendly” counterpart.  However, the cost difference is usually small (5-15%).  Oftentimes, when the customer is informed that the job can be done using better performing, environmentally friendly coatings, they usually accept the cost increase to get a better job.  But, it is up to the contractor to educate his customers about these options.  This brings us to the second point.

2)Lack of Knowledge - Many people, even paint contractors, are not aware of the “green” options available to them.  What little that they do know, is not enough to make them change their old habits.  Many of these “green” paints behave somewhat differently than what painters are used to.  There are minor differences in application, dry-time, and re-coat time.  Because many painters won’t take the time to learn how to use these coatings, they think that they are bad products and won’t use them.

What’s Next?

The future of “green” paints and the “green” movement as a whole is very bright.  Paint manufacturers are researching and developing innovative, new products everyday.  In addition to this, the government is passing legislation creating incentives for developers, builders, and general contractors to use “green” solutions on their projects.

If we all work together and do our part, we can preserve our fragile and beautiful planet.


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