What exactly is an eco friendly paint?

What exactly is an eco friendly paint?

Most commercial paints are now very low in VOCs and are water-based. But does that make them eco-friendly? Kay Hill puts a toe into a hot debate....

Cotton Grass and Dogs Mercury paint from Nature Paint

Nature Paint's Cotton Grass and Dogs Mercury colours have been used in this kitchen. Nature Paint products are acrylic and formaldehyde-free, they're made in Cornwall and come in powder form - 1kg pack costs £19.95 and makes 2.5 litres. There is disagreement over use of the term 'eco-friendly' between manufacturers that don't use acrylic in their mixes and those that do.

There’s nothing like a lick of paint to give your home a quick spring makeover – but with so many brands on the market, almost all of them making environmental claims of one kind or another, it’s not easy to sort the limewash from the greenwash.
Mark Beeley, director of Cornwall-based NaturePaint explains what is in a tin of paint: 'Most paints have three things in them: the binder – the sticky stuff that makes it cling to the wall; the filler – the inert material that spreads out on the wall; and the pigment that makes it colourful. Most fillers are inert materials like chalk and china clay that are pretty harmless, so they are less of an issue when making decisions about paint.'
Pigment choices are to do with toxicity, he says: 'A lot of pigments are synthetic and many have never been thoroughly tested as they have been around a very long time.'  If you think that years of use means that something is safe, think again - the Canadian government has recently banned Pigment Red 3, which has been used in food, cosmetics and paint for generations, because of new evidence that it may be harmful to human health.
'Ideally we use natural pigments that are dug out of the ground, such as ochre and umber,' says Beeley. 'Others have to be treated, for example clay treated with sulphur goes blue. Occasionally we have to use manufactured pigments – for example, lapis lazuli is a semi-precious stone so we have to use a synthetic alternative or no one would be able to afford it. And natural doesn’t always mean best for the environment – if a raw material is in short supply it’s more sustainable to use a synthetic alternative.'


Yellows from Earthborn Paints. Its Claypaints contain no oils or acrylic polymers. £31 for 2.5 litres. Paints are made in Germany and tinted in the UK
We want our paints to be natural, but to last for a long time and have great depth of colour
Mylands Paint UK-made products contain small amounts of acrylic resin.  Feature wall in Lolly Pop marble matt emulsion No 275. £34.66 per 2.5L
Vibrant colours from eico, £34.50 for 2.5 litres. eico acrylic paints are made in Iceland
Soft blues from Ecos Paint, around £50 for 5 litres. Product contains no solvents but small amounts of vinyl acetate
Annie Sloan Chalk Paint is ideal for up cycling furniture and for covering your walls. www.anniesloan.com
Newlife Paint's Reborn brand (29 colours) is made from largely recycled paint. £29 for 2.5 litres
Does a cut in VOCs mean pretty much all paints are eco friendly?
In days gone by it was easy to spot a chemical paint because it stunk to high heaven. But EU legislation has seriously limited the amount of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) allowed in paint, leading manufacturers to change their formulae to comply with the new rules. In doing so many of the chemical nasties have been driven from paint. But not everyone thinks that means all paints are good from an eco point of view.
And where the plot thickens, quite literally, is when it comes to the binder, which makes paint stick to a surface. (Traditional paints such as limewash didn’t have a binder -  which is why you end up with it all over your back if you lean against the wall.)
'In most conventional paints that binder is derived from petrochemicals,' says Beeley. 'There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, they are not dangerous, but they are being made from a resource that’s diminishing. So if you can make paint from something other than oil, isn’t it better to do so? At Nature Paint, our binder is milk protein and plant gums made from roots'.
Earthborn Paints, which has achieved the EU EcoLabel certification for its core products, offers a VOC-free Claypaint as an alternative to emulsion, which is highly breathable and dries to an ultra matt finish. The company also uses methylcellulose plants gums (commonly used as a laxative.. so safe enough to eat..mmm) as the binder indeed you can see all the ingredients listed on the tins.
Ross Samson of the Linseed Paint Company is clearly annoyed by some companies' decision to market their products as eco friendly: 'Because all governments are trying to reduce VOC usage, a low or a zero rating is usually trumpeted as ‘Good for the Planet’. If the solvent is water, there are almost no volatile organic compounds, which is good for the painter. But it does not automatically make the paint environmentally friendly. Acrylic (plastic) paint is water-based, and is often sold as environmentally friendly because of its low VOCs.
'But since when did plastic become green? Acrylic polymers are petroleum products..they're derived from fossil fuels pumped out of the ground and produced in huge oil refineries.'
Mylands' French Green No 187 marble matt emulsion, £34.66 per 2.5L tin
Pots of Paint's Sea Green paint with natural (non acrylic) binder, from £36 for 2.5L. www.potsofpaint.com
Earthborn Claypaint come in lovely dusky/pastel hues. www.earthbornpaints.co.uk
Fired Earth emulsion in Andaman Sea, £34.50 for 2.5L matt emulsion
Auro natural paints contain ingredients such as organic linseed oil, coconut fat and palm kernel
Auro paints are breathable and contain no petrochemical products. www.auro.co.uk
Brassica and Cornforth White paints from Farrow & Ball, £39.50 for 2.5L
Natural paint company Auro uses binders made from certified organically-grown linseed, rapeseed, soya oils and coconut and palm kernel fats. It uses no 'ingredients' derived from petrochemicals and is also concerned that acrylic paint brands are jumping on the green bandwagon.
And Edward Bulmer, interior designer, green campaigner and founder of Pots of Paint, is not a fan of acrylic: 'Normal petrochemical-based paints are notoriously wasteful, yielding up to 30 litres of toxic waste per litre of paint manufactured,' he says. And his company's paints are made with 'sustainably produced' raw materials such as beeswax, milk casein and linseed oil,' in processes that produce almost no waste'.
The case for acrylic
Of course, acrylic has come to be used so widely in paint because it is very good at its job.
It dries exceptionally fast, meaning you get two or three coats on in an afternoon, and it makes paint robust and hard-wearing. Interior designer Paul Warren says he tends not to use a so-called natural paint on a project where the interior will take a bashing from kids and pets. 'And that's because they aren't as hard wearing, in my opinion, as the acrylic paints.'
Rishi Subeathar is founder of eicó which makes washable acrylic paint with zero VOCs in a staggering 10,000 colours: 'Eicó paints are manufactured using 100 per cent pure acrylic, essential for great quality paint that doesn’t crack, blister or fade.
'To achieve pure acrylic, large amounts of energy are required which adds both to the cost and the carbon footprint. By manufacturing our paints in Iceland, the energy comes from 100 per cent free geothermal and hydro-power energy making the manufacturing process carbon neutral. Our paints are then shipped back to the UK on regular ship routes that often run with only 30 per cent of their cargo, so by using unfilled space, we are not adding any further carbon footprint.”
Can paints using non-acrylic binders compete in the hard-wearing stakes?
According to Auro: 'Over 30 years' research has gone into these unique formulations, assuring quality and time-tested formulations. Yes, they do take slightly longer to dry but two coats of wall emulsion can still be applied in a day. Perhaps as end-users our expectations on speed need to slow down slightly if a true step towards having ecological, sustainable products is desired.''


Recent colours from UK company Farrow & Ball
Little Greene's Bone China Mid Blue paint is used on the back wall. £41.50 per 2.5L intelligent matt emulsion
Ecos Paints, around £50 per 5L tins. Ecos paints are solvent free and are made in Lancashire
Pots of Paint, the brand launched by Edward Bulmer, offers acrylic free paint
Waste paint becomes new paint with Newlife
Newlife has addressed the issue of waste paint (of which there are milliions of gallons per year in the UK alone). Its Reborn collection of 29 colours is made from 90 per cent recycled paint collected from local authorities around the country - so diverting it from landfill or incineration.
Founder Keith Harrison: 'The paint is sorted by colour then blended to match specific shades without the addition of any extra pigments – everything is made from existing waste paint. It is then tested and filtered to ensure quality standards are met. Each 2.5 litre tin of paint can save up to one and a half waste tins from landfill.'
Many well known manufacturers use acrylic but have other green aspects to their paint.
Mylands paint has been made in London since 1884 and is the paint of choice with scenery painters at the BBC. 'We are one of the last manufacturers to still use natural earth pigments in many of our paints and we're proud that our emulsion paint has better opacity than all other commercially available emulsion paints on the market,' says MD Dominic Mylands. 'In our tests Mylands paint offers the strongest combination of durability and eco-friendliness.'
Little Greene’s paint is also made in the UK and uses 'only the finest natural, organic and safe synthetic pigments, giving superb depth of colour, high covering power and the long life expected from modern paints'. Its emulsion paints are in the minimal VOC category, its oil paints are made with sustainably grown vegetable oils and even its tins are made from mainly recycled steel. Several Little Greene paints meet the even stricter safety standards for use on children’s toys.
Ecos Organic Paints are manufactured in Lancashire, and contain no VOCs nor solvents. Its formulations contain mixture of natural and synthetic binders, the latter being vinyl acetate; while Fired Earth uses acrylic binders, has minimal VOCs and uses a mix of natural and synthetic pigments.
Finally Farrow & Ball  – the contents of which are a closely guarded trade secret. However, a detailed perusal of its website reveals that some paints, like casein distemper, are free from acrylic, while others, like its popular modern emulsion, are acrylic based.