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What makes our paint so green?

Well, In the rush to jump on the “environmentally friendly” wagon, paint manufacturers make claims that are often only partly true. Just as sickly sweet drinks may bear the banner “fat free”, which is true but irrelevant, so paints may be advertised as using the “highest quality ingredients” (as if the paint were soup) or as having low or no volatile organic compounds, but water-based emulsion paint has never had anything more than traces of VOCs. So, today, when a paint manufacturer proclaims this special quality of its emulsion, I find myself wishing that they were humorous enough to also advertise their wall coatings as “fat free” and “low in sodium”.
  When it comes to judging how green a paint’s credentials are, there are three important questions, but none of the three alone gives a complete answer.
1. Does the paint contain volatile organic compounds, or, how ill does it make your painter?
2. Is the paint made of natural wholesome ingredients and can you eat it?
3. How much fossil fuel was burnt and how much pollution was created to make the paint?

The healthy home decorator?

One commonly used criterion is how safe the paint is to the painter. Volatile organic compounds are generally bad for people. They can cause headaches, many are carcinogenic, they can cause liver damage, and some will cause you to go blind if ingested. Most of these VOCs derive from hydrocarbon solvents. One of the most famous baddies is Toluene. Many manufacturers therefore proudly state that their product contains none, although the replacement might be just as bad. Benzene, acetone, petroleum, white spirits, these are all bad, bad, bad. Because governments all over the world are trying to reduce the VOCs used (e.g. European legislation Directive 99/13/CE on the reduction of VOC in the furniture industry), a low rating 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? Some “green” paint manufacturers modify the hydrocarbon solvents themselves, so they are aliphatic rather than aromatic (which generally means they stink rather than smell nice, like petroleum and benzene, and are particularly dangerous). This is precisely what one green paint does and proudly advertises the fact – but the solvents themselves are petrochemical distillates! To protect the health of the painter and to avoid “sick house syndrome” this paint manufacturer uses chemically altered plant byproducts and fossil fuel and calls it GREEN. This healthy home line of marketing reaches is pinnacle of madness in one eco-paint, which claims to have special, expensive honeycomb-shaped silicon added to its pigments which helps to trap air-borne hydrocarbon poisons: a paint that purifies the air! If you believe that, I should add here that our paint comes with free, invisible fairy dust.
  Paint that is unhealthy to the painter is not green paint. But the opposite is not necessarily true.
  At the Linseed Paint Company, we don’t really care about the painter. That may sound flippant, but the point is we use natural products, which means that the painter with some common sense should be fine and should consider their greatest threat coming from ladders. Turpentine is a fantastic solvent, distilled from pine resin (the residue is rosin, for you fiddlers). It is used in pine-fresh cleaning products, it is anti-septic and can be used on wounds, it is even found in Vicks rubs, for goodness sake. Although 100% natural, please don’t drink it, for it is poisonous. But it’s not all that poisonous compared to other hydrocarbon solvents. Its most common harmful side effect is that it dries out your hands and your skin can become allergic to it if you frequently wash with it. The danger in poison is the dose. And the amount of turpentine we use in our paint ranges from none to 5%. So, unless you could accidentally drink 15 litres of our paint, there is no danger of going blind!

Natural ingredients?

This is not high on the list of things that paint manufacturers shout about. And you should ask why. Worse is when manufacturers speak of "finest materials". What is a fine artificial resin?
  The less said about acrylic paint the better. The solvent, water, is completely natural. And it is on the water that the manufacturers will concentrate. The drying process – water evaporates, acrylic polymers fuse – is completely safe to humans. But the acrylic polymers are petroleum products, fossil fuels pumped out of the ground, produced in huge oil refineries. Plastic, that’s what the paint is. Let’s say no more and move on to “oil” paints.   One manufacturer of very desirable paints claims to use only the best ingredients. The same could probably be said of nuclear weapons. As it happens, their exterior oil paint is an alkyd resin paint. What does that mean? Well, that means, fatty acids are extracted from plant oils and added to ethanol, created from the sugars from sugar cane, with low octane petrol used as a solvent. And this paint is top of the range “traditional” paint.
  To be fair, this manufacturer does not advertise this version of its paint as environ-mentally friendly. It makes a version of alkyd resin paint with hardly any solvents, which it does call “eco-“. This is the low VOCs definition of a green paint discussed above. But the “best ingredients” – plant oils and plant sugars – have been processed and altered until the resin created is artificial, man-made, although undoubtedly utilising the best “fatty acid” process and not the mediocre “alcoholysis” or “glyceride” processes.
  Our paint resins are natural. Linseed and other plant oils are squeezed from seeds and you paint that oil onto your house or shed or boat. Of course there’s more to it than that or else you could make your own linseed oil paint easily. Yes, we do process the oils, employing a secret and highly complex procedure: we expose the natural oil to air. We speed up the drying process for you by starting it before we sell it to you. It is deadly dull, like watching paint dry. Literally.
  The solvent is natural. Pure resin from coniferous trees is distilled, that is, heated and the “gum oil” or turps is collected.
  The pigments are mostly natural, clay to you and me, extracted from the ground. Only the colours let us down in the green issue. Natural colours are not added colours, they are the natural colour of the minerals in the clay. Iron oxide is red (Mars, the Red Planet, is covered in rust), carbon is black. They never fade, that is just their natural colour. When it comes to blue and orange and vibrant green, well, here we are in the realm of chemically created dyes and, sometimes, poisonous minerals. But here the choice – natural earth colours, like sienna, ochre or umber or unnatural dyes – is yours not mine.

Pollution and fossil fuels

In many ways the crucial question these days is how much fossil fuel is burnt in production, transportation and sale. Precise answers are not possible, but some simple observations are. For example, the production of turpentine involves the tapping of living pine trees or the extraction of resin from wood harvested for other uses, normally timber. Either way fossil fuel consumption (vehicles driving to site, electricity driving machinery) is small. The resin is then distilled. That involves some heat. Compare this to the drilling for oil and the chemical refining of crude into petroleum products. The phenomenal scale of the petrochemical industry means that mineralised spirits are cheaper than turpentine, but it is patently obvious that the production of turpentine has the smaller carbon footprint. White spirits is a fossil fuel, for goodness sake! Turpentine doesn’t even travel far, ours comes from Portugal (even though it is cheaper from Brazil).
  Flax seed is collected and pressed to make linseed oil. Tractors are employed and they use fossil fuels. But when was the last time you heard complaints about how environmentally unfriendly growing wheat and barley is? Flax could be grown on land worked by horses or oxen and pressed using muscle power, making it carbon neutral. It isn’t, but once upon a time it was. Compare this with the chemical processes involved in making alkyd resin oil: an acid anhydride, a polyol and an unsaturated fatty acid are combined and cooked together to create an artificial resin then dissolved in petrochemical solvents. The fatty acids come from sunflower, soyabean, safflower and fish oil, but how green does that make it? This is high-tech industrial stuff, with a large carbon footprint, and you have to know that gloss paints are cheap thanks to the use of fossil fuels.


The unhealthiest paints use natural materials tortured into unnatural ingredients with petrochemical solvents. These are fossil fuels, the main contributor to global warming, and this makes the paint even less friendly to the environ-ment. Not surprisingly, a high VOC rating is a sure sign of a non-green paint.
  The paints that use these evil mineralised spirits as a solvent are alkyd resin paints, which derive from plant products. You could think of them as comparable to bio-fuel: plant products engineered to make an industrial product. This would make them greenish, if it weren’t for the solvents used. And the only point in modifying hydrocarbon solvents with a ring-shaped molecular structure (aromatic) so they are open chains (aliphatic) is to make them less carcinogenic, it doesn’t make them any friendly to planet Earth. Low solvent alkyd resin paints are, however, quite green. You will have to look high and low for them.
  Paints that make the most noise about their green credentials are usually acrylic paints. They are the healthiest product for the painter, because there are almost no air-borne emissions from the paint, apart from evaporating water. However, the solid dried paint is a mixture of pigments – which are usually fairly benign – and plastic. This is a petroleum product, a fossil carbon. It is not natural and it contributes to global warming. Amazingly, one “eco” acrylic paint claims that it alone is suitable for vegetarians and vegans. It doesn’t use fish oil. Neither do we. We may be guilty of the mass murder of flax plants, but our smug “eco” paint rival uses plastic polymers derived from crude oil that once was vegetation that died in the Jurassic, drilled from deep under the earth or sea. I hope vegans aren’t taken in.
  Linseed oil paint is made of natural ingredients, which undergo no more intensive industrial processing than being heated. No fossil fuels are used as ingredients and less fossil fuel is used in the paint’s production than any other type of exterior paint. It thus contributes the least to global warming. The small risk to the health of users comes from natural plant products which are considered a low poisonous danger and are, in any case, used in miniscule amounts. Linseed oil is low in sodium but, be warned, is high in fat.