How to dispose of old paint cans

Consumer Reports News: February 06, 2008 11:28 AM

You’ve probably got at least a few partially used cans of paint or stain sitting around your basement, garage, or shed. Should you hold on to them for touch-up jobs? Bring them to your municipal recycling center? Find an organization to donate them to?

You’re not alone in your predicament. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently estimated that as much as 69 million gallons of paint are left over annually in the United States. That’s enough paint to cover 27.6 billion square feet each and every year, or the five boroughs of New York City--some 303 square miles—more than three times. Keeping the paint is definitely a better move than tossing it in the trash; at least that way the paint stays out of the waste stream, where it could contaminate soil and groundwater. Or you could even use the paint for odd jobs around the house, say, painting your garage walls. But if you want to give the boot to those old cans, here’s what you can do:

Check the label. Paint made before 1978 might contain lead, and paint made before 1991 might contain mercury. Both materials should be listed on the paint label. If they’re not and you’re concerned the paint contains either of those neurotoxins, read "Dispose of it," below. (For more information on the environmental health impacts of lead and mercury, use the Toxics search on

Donate it for reuse. Some organizations will accept paint that’s in good condition, meaning it can be easily stirred to a smooth consistency and is uncontaminated. The paint should also be in an intact, labeled container. Check for donation options in your area by clicking on “Paint donation” at Earth911.

Recycle it. Some communities offer recycling programs for old paint and empty paint cans. Water-based, or latex, paint can be recycled into new paint or it can even be used to create nonpaint products such as cement. Oil-based, or alkyd, paint is usually used for fuel blending—meaning it’s burned to create energy at a power plant. To find out whether paint recycling is an option in your area, contact your municipal recycling or household-hazardous-waste center. You can also search for recycling options by ZIP code by clicking on “Paint recycling” at Earth911 or by calling the group’s free service line at 800-253-2687.

Dispose of it. If you can’t donate or recycle your paint, find out how to properly dispose of it in your area. Each municipality has different requirements, depending on whether the paint is oil- or water-based.

Oil-based paint is always considered hazardous and should be disposed of at a household-hazardous-waste collection facility. Water-based paint is treated as hazardous in only a few states—including California, Washington and Minnesota—and is still generally accepted at hazardous-waste facilities. To find disposal instructions for your area, contact your local household-hazardous-waste center. You can also search for options by ZIP code by clicking on “Paint disposal” at Earth911 or by calling the group’s free service line at 800-253-2687.— Kristi Wiedemann , Science and Policy Analyst,

Essential information:
Find out which interior paint to buy in our March 2008 report on interior paints, which includes the latest information on one-coat finishing and details on volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in paint. 

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