Tossing Unused Paint Is More Complicated Than You Think

published Mar 10, 2020
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Whether you’ve just brightened up your space with a bold accent wall, created DIY abstract art, hopped on the trending black paint train, or gave your living room a coat of gray paint, there seems to always be a little bit of paint left over. But you can’t just throw a half-empty can of paint in the garbage. So what are you supposed to do with it?

“Nowadays, paint is much safer,” says Kristen Chuber, Senior Director of Marketing at Paintzen. “Previously, paint was made with lead or more toxic chemicals, so paint is much safer than it used to be, but we still don’t want it interfering with the environment in any way.” The problem arises when liquid paint makes its way to the landfill, where it can leach into the soil and cause groundwater contamination. So in disposing of paint, the key is to make sure you’re not tossing out any leftover liquid. Here’s the right way to dispose of unused latex, oil-based, and spray paint to keep you and the environment safe.

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Use the cat litter method to dry up paint

This tried-and-true method has been around for ages, and works for both latex and oil-based paint. “If you have a paint can that’s maybe half-full or less, add cat litter to it, and stir it up so that it’s a heavy consistency—like oatmeal. Leave the lid off and let it dry out for a couple of days, then put it in the garbage pail,” says Bob Ritacco, a professional painter of 40 years and owner of Ritacco Painting in Gardner, New York.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Or try paint hardener, and recycle the can

If you’re not into lugging a load of cat litter to your home, you can purchase a paint hardener at most local hardware stores. It essentially does the same thing, though note that this method doesn’t work for oil-based paints. However, it does have one benefit: “It turns leftover paint solid. Once it’s solid, you can scoop it out of the can, and dispose of it normally, and then recycle the can,” says Chuber. Double environmental win! Of course, if you don’t want to toss the paint at all, there are a few other options for dealing with leftovers.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Drop off unused paint at designated locations

If you have a lot of paint left over, Chuber recommends dropping it off with an organization devoted to safe paint disposal, such as Paintcare. Paintcare has drop-off sites in 10 states that will accept your latex or oil-based paint, and they will donate it to organizations that can use it or they will safely dispose of it on your behalf.

You can also type your zip code into Earth911’s recycling search, and it will show you where your closest hazardous waste facilities are, as well as any drop-off events that might be happening in your area for both latex and oil-based, as well as spray paint.

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Directly donate it to an organization that could benefit

Check to see if your local Habitat for Humanity, school theater program, or emergency shelter is in need of paint. There are even centers like Big Reuse that function similarly to a Goodwill, but for building materials. You donate your materials and others can purchase them for a fraction of the cost.

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Post about it on social media sites

Would anyone really want your unused paint? Yes. They would.

“Especially if it’s large quantities of spray paint or oil or latex, if you post online, I’m sure there are a lot of people that would take you up on that,” says Brooklyn-based artist Jovanni Luna. Luna uses recycled or unwanted latex paint to create tiny sculptures called paintskins. He suggests Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and other social media sites to find unwanted paint.

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Use it up

“If you only have an inch or two left in the can, honestly, we recommend using it. You could always use it on spare cardboard boxes or things you’re going to dispose of,” says Chuber. “This is especially true with spray paint,” she adds. “You don’t ever want to keep a half-empty can of spray paint because of all of the pressure.” Once you’ve used it all up and the can is dried out, then it’s safe to recycle the can (although not all recycling facilities will accept spray paint cans—check with your local recycling program first).

For your next project, be sure to use a paint calculator first to make sure you don’t overbuy. But if you do, a local school group or artist might thank you.