It is difficult to pick up a magazine or newspaper without encountering an article about global warming, VOCs and “green” paint. Although the authors of most of these articles are well-intentioned journalists with non-scientific backgrounds, regrettably most of these pieces are materially incomplete and misleading. As the environment and personal health are issues of importance to all, I am addressing some of the popular misconceptions concerning paint, VOCs and the impact of coatings upon our environment.
The world’s scientific community is in agreement that the only way to compare the environmental impact of different coatings is on a life-cycle basis. The real issue in making these comparisons must be the total environmental impact resulting from the production and use of a given can of paint. It does not make sense to focus exclusively on the VOC level of paint “in the can” without taking into account the environmental damage done in creating the components necessary to produce such a coating. Admittedly, low VOC coatings are kinder to the inhabitants of an environment in which they have been used than traditional solventborne coatings but the “on site” environmental impact is a small segment of the overall impact of a particular coating.
Most of the negative impact of paint occurs away from the point of application during the production phase of a coating. Homeowners and “green consumers” are shocked to learn that waterborne coatings typically require three to four times the “smokestack” energy input required to produce solventborne coatings (which admittedly possess higher VOCs “in the can”). Low VOC coatings, like electric cars, cannot be expected to protect the environment if the energy required to produce these coatings and power these cars produces even more environmental damage than other alternatives.
The use of a raw VOC score to document the environmental friendliness of a coating is no more accurate than using only a cholesterol score to assess the general health of a patient. It is a misrepresentation of mythic proportions to represent that zero VOC coatings will not harm the environment. Millions of homeowners take pride in the fact that they are applying zero VOC coatings in their home – totally unaware that smokestack emissions are taking place hundreds of miles away in the same atmosphere shared by all. (It is more accurate to represent low VOC coatings as a Prius-like, less-damaging alternative than as the ultimate solution.)
VOC comparisons are also misleading to the extent that the real scientific issue is not VOCs but reactivity – the tendency for a particular solvent to produce ozone when introduced into the environment (there are no state or federal air standards for VOCs!). Most Americans are unaware that all VOCs are not equally damaging, that some solvents containing VOCs have no environmental impact whereas others create significant damage. American regulators have chosen to adopt the total VOC approach rather than the scientifically sounder reactivity approach because it is far easier for a bureaucracy to administer. The American scientific community is well aware that significant distortion is created as a result of this decision. When reactivity is accounted for in the calculations, it is entirely possible to have a coating with a VOC of 50, which is kinder to the environment than another coating with a VOC of 10!
There are environmentally friendly, oil-based coatings, which will replicate the sheen, consistency and lasting power of traditional solventborne oil paints. These coatings, known as waterborne alkyds, represent a significant breakthrough as they represent traditional oil paints modified to include harmless water rather than solvents as the vehicle – the VOC of waterborne alkyds is less than 50 and these coatings were developed in the Netherlands almost thirty years ago. Fine Paints of Europe ECO is the most popular waterborne alkyd in America today.
Every time that any paint is manufactured or applied environmental damage results. There is no such thing as a coating free of negative environmental impact. Release of harmful VOCs by any coating must be evaluated on the basis of the expected useful life of the coatings in question. Thus if we had two paints with VOCs of identical reactivity and paint A had a VOC of 100 and expected life of 20 years and paint B had a VOC of 25 and expected life of 5 years the paints would be equal on a VOC release basis but the tie would certainly be broken by the fact that much more energy would be required to acquire, manufacture and apply coating B four times as frequently. High performance coatings last dramatically longer than conventional formulations and the paints which are kindest to the environment, are the paints that last the longest. The paints that last the longest are also the most beautiful, the most economically efficient and the least expensive to use on an annualized basis.
Fine Paints of Europe has been at the forefront of the green paint movement in America since our founding in 1987. We are active members of the U.S. Green Building Council and more than 75% of the paints we sell qualify for LEED® certification.* We strongly believe that the environmental impact of coatings is a complex scientific issue, which is frequently distorted for presentation to a well-meaning population who want to do the environmentally right thing.
A recent article appearing in the New York Times Home Section made reference to the fact that domestic paint manufacturers are currently “furiously researching technologies” in an effort to produce long-lived, environmentally friendly formulations. Their position is in marked contrast to that of several Dutch paint manufacturers who focused on environmentally friendly coatings more than two decades ago at a time when the green movement was being born in the Netherlands. We at Fine Paints are grateful that Wijzonol, our Dutch manufacturer, has always been on the forefront of coatings technology.
Fine Paints of Europe is committed to providing beautiful, durable coatings formulated to minimize environmental impact.
* All Eurolux™ paints and primers and all ECO™ paints and primers meet requirements for compliance with LEED® EQ credit 4.2: Low-emitting materials. The intent of this credit is to reduce the quantity of indoor air contaminants that are odorous, irritating and/or harmful to the comfort and wellbeing of installers and occupants. For information on U.S. Green Building Council, please visit www.usgbc.org. For access to most recent technical supporting documents prepared by Air Resources Board please visit: http://www.arb.ca.gov/coatings/arch/docs.