How much paint is stashed in your garage or basement? If you're an average American, you have about 4 gallons. And someday you'll have to decide what to do with it.
The easiest thing to do is toss it in the garbage. But if you do, you'll be polluting groundwater and soil: Three hundred toxic substances, including lead and mercury, have been found in commercial oil and latex paints. And since the Environmental Protection Agency has designated paint a hazardous waste, you also may be breaking the law. That leaves you with only two safe alternatives: Use your paint (or give it to someone who will) or recycle it.
Believe it or not, you can actually recycle latex paint. In Seattle, Wash., large quantities of latex paint are being collected and mixed together in a test recycling program.
* First, moldy and dirty paint is thrown out, along with all dark colors. Yellow and orange also are eliminated because they may contain lead. The rest is strained and blended.
* No matter what shades are mixed together, the paint always comes out beige. In recycling circles, the color is now called "Seattle Beige."
* About 45 percent of the latex paint collected in Seattle can be mixed and reused. The recycled paint is similar in quality to new paint, with a year-long shelf life. Much of it goes to schools and hospitals.
According to recyclers I've talked to, you can do the same thing at home. Here's how they say it can be done:
* To make recycling easier, separate the oil-based from the latex paint and the interior from the exterior paint.
* If you've had cans of paint sitting around for years, check to see if they're still usable. The paint could be dried out or moldy, even if the lids have been on the whole time.
* If the paint is unusable, dispose of what's left at a hazardous waste facility.
* If your latex paints still look fresh, try mixing them together. The blend makes a good primer -- or a final coat, if you like the color.
* Depending on the amount of paint and the number of shades included, your primer may range in color from beige to gray to mud.
* Don't mix oil-based paint. Oil-based paint either should be used up or taken to a hazardous waste facility. It can't be mixed the way latex paint can.
* Some communities have paint exchange programs called Drop & Swaps, where people bring still-usable paint to trade or give away. Santa Monica, Calif., for example, has recirculated more than 600 gallons of paint through a paint exchange. Contact your local, county or state waste management officials to find out if there's a Drop & Swap in your area -- or if they're willing to help start one.