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A guide to Eco-Paints: what are they and what’s available?

A guide to Eco-Paints: what are they and what’s available?

Image by Marco Verch.

With the increased emphasis on our environmental impact, eco-paints are becoming a more popular and common choice. For a business they add to their sustainability commitment with lower CO2 emissions during their lifespan and the ability to compost them at the end of their lives. For the decorator the lower odour and VOC emissions can make work faster, particularly when applying second or third coats. The homeowner could have a warmer home with less condensation on the walls and no lingering smells.

So what are eco-paints, what should you look out for and what brands could you choose?

What is an eco-paint?

“Eco-paints” has become a catch-all term to cover a raft of paint products with lower environmental impacts. These paints are typically water based (although not always), have low VOC emissions and can be composted without harming the environment. They’ll also often use natural ingredients in their compounds, tend to be allergy free and the firms manufacturing them will have strong and demonstrable commitments to sustainability.

What’s a VOC?

A “volatile organic compound” is any organic compound that has a boiling point below 250 degrees centigrade. In practice, paints contain solvents that release chemicals as they dry and age. As well as having an immediate effect, they can build up over time. If you’ve ever had a headache after painting a room, the chances are it was caused by VOCs.

There is some debate about the health issues around VOCs. Aside from their immediate short-term effects, the US Environmental Protection Agency has identified them as potentially triggering cancer. However, this is strongly caveated with a need for more research. Regardless, for professionals the presence of VOC represents a health risk that should be managed. Offices could have to be vented for longer to remove lingering smells, while decorators may need to wear masks to protect against the build-up of fumes. In the home, VOC fumes can linger, making nurseries and bedrooms unpleasant places to be.

There are also environmental concerns about how paints with VOCs are produced and disposed of. These include higher energy usage during manufacture and disposal of waste paints. Many traditional paints don’t decompose in an environmentally friendly way, leaving behind traces of damaging chemicals. These can find their way into water systems, affecting the local aquaculture.

Are ingredients and manufacture sustainable?

Eco-paints are typically water based or use a sustainable vegetable oil source. Other ingredients will usually be natural, plant-based ones, although some use beeswax and other animal by-products. Organic paints are available, which use no chemicals or pesticides in their base ingredients. Vegans will also find paints that omit animal products completely.

Most of the eco-paint manufacturers we reviewed were clear on their commitment to sustainability across the production process. Growing ingredients near to site, using reed beds to purify waste water and being powered by renewable energy were some of the ways they were boosting their eco-credentials.

How is the quality?

In the past, eco-paints may have suffered from a perception problem, particularly around longevity and coverage. This doesn’t appear to be the case now, as our review of online rankings and ratings revealed. The industry seems to have tackled these issues to create products that are applied in the same two or three coats as a mass-market paint and keep a depth of colour.

Are there options for professional decorators?

Several eco-paints are being marketed directly to the decorating trade. These products have slightly thicker formulations to reduce the number of coats needed further, and are being provided in larger tins. An added attraction is their low odour and VOC emissions, both of which allow a room to be used much faster than many mass market paints.

Is cost a factor?

We found a mix of pricing, although none could be described as “cheap”. Many of the eco-paint brands we reviewed were aimed at the middle and upper-middle market. This space appears able to absorb higher costs as the customer’s aim is to achieve a higher quality of finish and will pay more to achieve it.

What about “mainstream” manufacturers?

The pressure to improve the environmental impact of paints appears to have reached parts of the mainstream. Crown Paints has produced the “Breatheasy” range, which is certified “allergy friendly” and “99% VOC free”. Dulux also has several “water based” paints in their range.

And the future?

Regulations and consumer demand are driving manufacturers to improve their eco-credentials. Some of the claims being made, particularly around VOCs, are as much to do with regulatory changes as acts of altruism.

That said, there are a wide range of truly eco-paints available to both the professional decorator and the keen hobbyist. If sustainability and reducing environmental impacts is a priority, finding a low-impact product made from entirely natural materials that provides a quality covering is not difficult.

What should I look for?

There is some “smoke and mirrors” surrounding eco-paints and their marketing claims. Technical claims about the performance of the product should be backed up with evidence. For example, claiming a product is “VOC free” needs supporting data that shows nothing more than trace amounts are present. During our research we found one company making a claim about VOC levels in its products that had been successfully challenged by a regulator.

Ignoring marketing claims, the EU Ecolabel is a standard that tests the product against strict environmental criteria. For paints this includes both minimising the harmful chemical content (such as VOC) and ensuring a good quality of finish. Getting an Ecolabel can be expensive as its done product-by-product, which means some smaller paint producers may not pursue it, even though their products would qualify.

Manufacturers are supposed to provide product fact sheets that contain information including risk factors and toxicity. These can be highly technical documents rather than consumer friendly reads. However, for professionals they provide a wealth of information about environmental performance that clients may find important for their own eco-targets. If your preference is for something lighter, requesting a list of ingredients may work just as well.

ISO4001 is an international standard that shows a company is taking environmental management seriously. It requires companies to look at every aspect of its operations to understand the environmental impact and put in place firm plans to reduce it. It won’t guarantee the quality of the paint, but does provide some reassurance about the manufacturer.

Finally, if you need product specific information around emissions or waste, it may be worthwhile approaching the manufacturer. During our research we found virtually no information about packaging, CO2 emissions or other environmental factors that might influence a decision. For a small home project you may not get this information, but it may be a different matter for a professional on a search for a supplier.

Should I use eco-paints on my next project?

Eco-paints have matured from niche products to something more mainstream. While they still suffer a little from marketing spin and hype, there are manufacturers delivering low-impact paints that could suit both professional and consumer needs. Information is still lacking in some places, particularly around packaging and production processes, but overall the message is clear:

if you’re planning to decorate a home, office or shop, there’s no reason an eco-paint can’t be at the forefront of your thinking.

UK based Eco-paint providers

We collated the following list up until 8th May 2019. It’s in alphabetical order and inclusion doesn’t warrant one brand is greener than the next.

If you think we’ve missed someone please contact us.

Earthborn

Available : Via Stockists Only

Offering a range of paints for both the home decorator and tradesperson, Earthborn paints are EU Ecolabel certified. They claim their products are “virtually” VOC free, partly due to solvents being used in some of their upstream supplier processes. That said, their own formulations are designed not to use VOC.

ecolour (formerly Auro)

Available : Direct Online, Via Stockists

Their products are water based and use a range of natural ingredients, many of which are sourced from close to where they’re made. They also have a selection of vegan paints that are completely free of animal byproducts. Ecolour were formerly known as Auro UK.

Edward Bulmer Natural Paint

Available : Direct Online

Edward Bulmer claims their products are net-carbon neutral, thanks to plant based materials, renewable energy use and reed beds to recycle water.

Eico

Available : Via Stockists Only

The company claims to have one of the lowest levels of VOC in its products in the UK. The website provides little information about the environmental credentials of the product.

Farrow and Ball

Available : Direct Online

Farrow and Ball manufacture a variety of water based paints with minimal VOC levels.

Fired Earth

Available : Direct Online

Fired Earth offers a wide range of products, of paint is just one. They have a number of water based products manufactured in the UK.

Frenchic

Available : Direct Online, Via Stockists

A chalk based paint manufacturer, their products are targeted at upcycling and furniture redecoration.

Graphenstone

Available : Direct Online

Using a predominantly lime base for their products, Graphenstone’s paints are claimed to absorb CO2 during their drying process. The addition of graphene to the formulation may also improve thermal insulation, while breathing properties should reduce internal condensation. The lime is produced using traditional burning methods.

Konig Colours

Available : Direct Online

Konig is a small scale UK producer offering a mix of off-the-shelf and custom colours. All paints are water based and are mixed to order.

Lakeland Paints

Available : Direct Online, Via Stockists

Lakeland produces a range of paints claimed to be “VOC free”.

Little Greene

Available : Direct Online, Via Stockists

Little Greene can trace its paint manufacturing heritage back to 1773. They produce a range of water based paints that are targeted at the higher end of the market. A range of oil based paints have also been created, formulated to use sustainable vegetable oil.

As an aside, they have partnerships with both National Trust and English Heritage, thanks in part to their history and records.

Nutshell Paints

Available : Direct Online, Via Stockists

Nutshell offers a range of emulsion, gloss and wood paints. Their products are VOC free and use a microporus approach to allow walls to breathe and reduce mould.

Old Fashioned Milk Paint

Available : Direct Online

The company produces a traditional powdered paint that has to be mixed on site with water. It’s lime based and has a low VOC level. Wall paints are a relatively new addition though, as the company has previously focused on wood paints.

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