Eco performers

Michelle Alcock of Teknos offers an insight into environmentally-friendly paints and how their performance has come on leaps and bounds.

Paints and finishes are far more than a design device that brings colour and cohesion to your home. They are vital to its sustainability, enhancing and protecting surfaces, extending their life and saving the need for wasteful replacement and the use of further natural resources and energy. But – and it is a big ‘but’ – using and living with conventional paints has not been great for your health or the environment.

Although so called ‘eco’ paints have been around for some time, there is no simple definition of what they are and negotiating the world of ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘natural’, ‘organic’ and ‘green’ paints can be a nightmare, even for the most chemically and sustainability literate. Many paints simply comply with strict legislation first introduced in 2010 to limit the level of one of the ‘nasties’ associated with conventional paints: volatile organic compounds, or VOCs for short. These toxic substances can cause you to suffer nausea, dizziness, headaches and allergic reactions and have been linked to cancer.

VOCs are chemical compounds that vaporise and are found in everything from furniture to the everyday cleaning products you have in your home, but paints have been one of the worst offenders. Organic solvents are the main, although not exclusive, source of VOCs in paints and, during application and drying, the solvents evaporate into the atmosphere. Conventional paint production also involves the use of non- sustainable resources and produces toxins.

Fifty years ago, virtually all paint was solvent-based and, traditionally, these products out-performed water-based paints for durability and gloss levels. For this reason they have tended to be popular for joinery such as skirting boards, doors and windows. When eco paints arrived on the scene, some performed disappointingly against this benchmark. They were difficult to apply, had poor coverage and lacked long term durability.

We are now in a new age of high performance water-based eco paints that, although having a lower carbon footprint and embracing manufacturing processes that tread more lightly on the planet, can match the performance of solvent-based.

Look for paints that have very low VOC levels so there is little or no unpleasant odour; unlike their traditional counterparts, they do not contain lead, chrome or other heavy metals, making them safer for you and the environment. As well as being more pleasant to use, you will find that the range available offers products suitable for both interior and exterior woodwork.

With the application of any finish, you should consider not only the environmental credentials of the product but the protection level it will provide and the aesthetics of the finish. Helped by the paint film usually being more flexible than with solvent based products, water-based paints tend to last longer and the best have excellent resistance to the weather and UV, rays so retain their colour and gloss. This reduces the frequency of repainting. Some specialist products offer high levels of washability and abrasion resistance where humidity is high, making them ideal for interior walls and ceilings in kitchens, bathrooms and wetrooms.

Good quality water-based paints contain high grade pigments and easily embrace the trend for increasingly strong shades. They are made from high quality raw materials, including superior pigments and binders, and a high proportion of solids. This helps to ensure good coverage and excellent flow, reducing the number of coats of paint you need and making the job a whole lot easier, while helping prolong the life of the paint once applied.

Generally you can thin these paints with water, making them extremely easy to use, whether you are applying them with a brush, roller or spray. Furthermore, they retain their ‘wet-edge’ when rolling or brushing onto walls to give an even, smooth finish that is harder to achieve with, for example, chalk-based paints.

With various ‘sheen’ levels available, replicating the look of traditional oil-based products is easy. Some are capable of providing an extremely high gloss finish, making them a popular choice in historic conservation areas. You can use these highly versatile water-based paints on doors and other joinery as well as furniture and metalwork, including railings and radiators. At the end of the job, painting tools used to apply water-based paints are easy to wash and reuse and just require cleaning with water and a detergent, so no solvent cleaner is needed.

When setting out to choose which paint to buy, it is worth looking beyond the product itself and thinking about its packaging and the disposal of excess paint. Worryingly, some 78 million plastic and 50 million metal cans are used for decorative paints every year in the UK and, despite industry efforts, very few of these get recycled, partly because the majority of household waste recycling centres do not accept waste paint. If paint is left over, consider donating it to a community group or charity that will be able to put it to good use.

When you are ordering paint products try to minimise waste by buying no more than is needed and use the most appropriate paint for the job; do your own research, never be afraid to ask questions, read the label carefully and always consider the claims made by the manufacturer. Remember, the least environmentally friendly paint product is one which fails to work, results in problems that lead to the loss of a building’s fabric, or that can make you unwell.

Michelle Alcock is managing director at Teknos