Ask Pablo: What's the Most Environmentally Friendly Way to Paint My Fence?

A young white woman painting a fence.

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Dear Pablo: My fence is in desperate need of some attention. I want to know, what is the most environmentally friendly way to make it look good again? Do I use paint or stain, or is there some other solution?

Paint brings memories of paint fumes, and stains conjure up a product heavily dependent on petroleum-based chemistry. Neither seem like appealing eco-friendly solutions, however, there are green options. Additionally, the prospect of skipping painting or staining a fence needs to be balanced with the alternative: losing your fence to mold, mildew and disrepair, which would require the harvesting of new wood and the building of an entirely new fence. While it is nearly impossible to make an accurate comparison between the environmental impacts of paint and logging, just understanding the factors may help you make the best decision.

Is Paint or Stain Better?

A senior man staining a picket fence.

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The main difference between paint and stain is that paint coats the surface while stain penetrates into the wood. Stain contains less binder and so it has a lower viscosity, allowing it to infiltrate the wood grains and fill pores. Paint, on the other hand, forms a protective layer that binds only to the surface of the fence. Stain is available in semi-transparent varieties that allow the natural wood grains to show, but also in translucent varieties that appear very similar to paint due to the pigments that they can contain.

From an environmental perspective neither option is more preferable but there are some things to look out for. Usually a culprit for sacrificing indoor air quality, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in paint can also be a potential health hazard when used outdoors. While they dissipate quickly, VOC-containing paints still contribute a small, yet measurable amount to local air quality issues and the fumes just aren't nice to breathe while painting. Over 3 billion gallons of paint are produced annually, collectively resulting in over 4 million tons of VOC emissions. Outdoor stains can contain preservatives, which may not necessarily be a bad thing. Preservatives fight off mold and mildew while extending the life of the fence. While it is a apples-to-oranges comparison, the alternative to using stain with preservatives may be the need to replace your fence sooner.

Recycled Paint
Many cities offer paint recycling programs. Not only is it a good idea to surrender your unused paint (and other unused chemicals) to your local household hazard waste facility but you may also find a suitable (and often free) paint for your fence. Recycled paint is simply a mix of all of the unused paint that has been collected, usually segregated only by white and all other colors, so that your color options are limited to white and gray. Since you don't really know what you are getting, it is hard to know the VOC or preservative content of the paint, but by choosing recycled you are giving a second chance to that unwanted paint.

Alternatives to Painting or Staining

Hands wearing yellow gardening gloves trimming a hedge.

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While painting or staining can extend the life of a fence significantly, regular cleaning may also extend its life, albeit not as much. Borrowing your neighbor's power-washer to clear off the winter mildew can revitalize a fence and keep it from decomposing too quickly.

One option is to replace the fence with a natural-looking hedge that will keep out unwanted deer, dogs, or nosy neighbors, while providing habitat for birds and other wildlife. You can begin with a wire fence that will rust away in a number of years, and surround it with suitable plants that will occupy this framework and make it their own. In just a few years the plants themselves can form an impenetrable wall of greenery. Of course this look doesn't suit everyone's taste and may not be practical in arid regions.

If you choose to refresh your fence with paint or stain you will need to balance the environmental and health impacts of petroleum-based ingredients, VOCs, preservatives, etc., with the longevity of your fence. Unless you are using the most environmentally egregious lead-based, high-VOC, preservative-laden paint, it will probably be worth it just to extend the life of your fence and avoid needing to consume new wood. A healthy tree removes an average 50 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. Of course, unsustainable logging practices can also contribute to habitat loss and environmental degradation. If the fence does need to be replaced, look for reclaimed wood and give some old barn-siding or old road sign a second chance.