How to Safely Dispose of Leftover Paint

Paint professionals break down how you should dispose of your unused hues.

two empty paint cans on floor
Photo: Bjarte Rettedal / Getty Images

Whether you completed a whole-house painting project or just did a few touch ups in one specific room, anyone who's ever bought paint before knows that there's almost always some left in the can once the job is done. While you can certainly hang on to remainder paint for future projects, especially if there's a significant amount left, some homeowners just don't have the space or desire to house countless metal cans. For others, particularly those with young children or without a secure place to stow cans, having excess paint in the home can be a safety and fire risk.

So, how can you safely, responsibly dispose paint? Ultimately, the best method will vary based on the type of paint you have and how much of it remains. With that being said, there are a few rules that stand across the board. Here, experts weigh in on the safest methods of disposing of every type of paint, from latex to acrylic.

The type of paint you use matters.

It's important to remember that most traditional paints (like acrylic, latex, oil-based, and so on) are considered hazardous waste when disposed of improperly, which is why it's so important to make sure you're taking great care in the way you throw out any remnants. Otherwise, your leftover paint can have a profoundly negative impact on both human and environmental health, according to Kathleen Hetrick, LEED AP, sustainability engineer with Buro Happold in Los Angeles. When possible, Hetrick suggests consumers purchase non-toxic paints that meet GreenSeal-11 certification and contain zero volatile organic compounds (VOCs). "You can even purchase bio-based paints like Milk Paint, ($16.99, for [an] eco-friendly alternative to synthetic paints," she says.

Disposing of oil-based paints and epoxies.

Usually, oil-based paints, epoxies, or anything that isn't water-based requires special disposal because of potential toxins and their flammable state, Matt Kunz, president of Five Star Painting, a Neighborly company, says. This includes your painting accessories, too. "You should be careful when disposing [of] painting supplies, especially if you are using certain oil paints or even epoxies," he says. "The instruments used, such as rags or brushes, need to be disposed of by following the product disposal instructions." Simply put, these leftovers, and anything that has come in contact with them, need to be taken to a hazardous waste collection event or location.

Getting rid of acrylic and latex paints.

You should take your acrylic and latex paints to a paint recycling center, according to Cory Summerhays, founder and president of Unforgettable Coatings. "Some waste management companies have these, or local state/county agencies have also set them up," he says. "In many areas, it is acceptable to dispose of acrylic (water-based) paint in the trash service if the paint is dried." Additionally, you can safely dispose of these paints by spreading any leftovers out on plastic or cardboard to dry in the sun, by mixing it with kitty litter or other shredded materials and waiting for it to dry, or by purchasing a mix that is specially designed to dry out leftover paint in the can.

Cleaning water-based paint accessories.

If you're looking to clean off your painting accessories like brushes, rollers, and paint trays so that you can use them again for future projects, Summerhays says you'll need to be mindful of how you do it. "Supplies used with water-based paints are usually safe to clean with water (and detergent if needed)," he says, adding that you should never let the water run into storm drains. "After being cleaned or let dry, they are [also] safe to toss in the garbage."

Do your due diligence.

While these guidelines are good for general knowledge, Summerhays says you need to be aware that there are often both state and county regulations that can vary across the country and even within a single state. "Be sure to check local regulations and suggested guidelines before disposing of any paints."

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