Can Paint Be Recycled?

Your old paint might be more recyclable than you think.

Paint Cans for Home Decorating and Improvement, Brushes, Color Swatches
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It is possible to recycle paint, but not always easy. Your options depend on several factors, including the type of paint you want to recycle, the condition it’s in, how much of it you have, and where you are.

Most of the paint we buy falls into two general categories: water-based and oil-based, so named because the pigment is suspended in either water or petrochemicals. Paints need binding agents, too, like the plastics commonly used in water-based latex paint, also known simply as latex paint.

Why Recycle Paint?

According to a 2012 study in the journal Resources and Environment, recycling latex paint—then producing an equal amount of recycled latex paint to replace it—instead of discarding it in a landfill can eliminate more than 68,000 pounds of CO2-equivalent global warming potential (GWP).

Paint is often sold in large cans or buckets, and sometimes we end up with more than we need. Don’t just throw away or pour out liquid paint, though; at the very least, it needs to be solidified first. While oil-based paints are considered hazardous waste in any form, latex paint may be accepted in landfills as long as it's solidified. Check with your local waste management authority, but a common protocol involves adding kitty litter or sawdust to a partially full can of latex paint, letting the mixture solidify, and then discarding it (with the lid off) in the trash. Sending your paint to a landfill obviously isn't as good as recycling or reusing it, but if you must, at least make sure it has solidified.

If possible, it might be worth holding onto extra paint—ideally storing it somewhere safe from extreme temperatures, like a basement or utility closet—in case you can use it again. If you only have a little bit left, it could also be smart to just use it up with an extra coat or touch-ups. If that isn’t possible or practical, though, you might be able to recycle or reuse it.

Here is a closer look at ways to recycle and reuse paint.

How to Recycle Paint

There are a few ways to recycle latex or water-based paint. First, it’s typically better not to mix together old cans of paint, as some recycling or reuse programs only accept paint still in its original container. 

It could be helpful to start by contacting your local solid waste management district, which may either hold periodic collection events for paint recycling or be able to tell you about other local resources.

Several U.S. states have enacted “paint stewardship” laws, designed to establish a network of collection sites where consumers can bring in leftover paint for recycling. Under these laws, consumers typically pay a small recycling fee when they buy new paint, which helps fund the recycling efforts of PaintCare. Organized by the paint manufacturing industry, PaintCare is a nonprofit launched after the first paint stewardship law was passed in Oregon in 2009. PaintCare programs also now exist in California, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. Paint retailers and reuse stores can volunteer to become drop-off sites for paint collection, offering benefits such as increased foot traffic by potential customers and compensation by PaintCare. You can find PaintCare drop-off sites here.

Other options vary by region. In the Southeastern U.S., for example, Atlanta Paint Disposal will pick up both water- and oil-based architectural house paints for a fee of $5 per gallon. Atlanta Paint Disposal operates across a wide swath of Georgia as well as Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee. In Southern California, Acrylatex Coatings and Recycling also collects and processes latex paints into reusable products. RepaintUSA offers latex paint recycling in the Mid-Atlantic region, as does Recolor Paints in the Northeast.

Oil-based paints are less widely used than water-based paints, which is good, since they are not as easily recycled. An empty can of oil-based paint might be recyclable, but the paint itself is considered hazardous waste that should be dealt with separately from traditional garbage and recycling. It’s worth checking, as some recycling programs may accept oil-based paints, but often the best available option will be a local household hazardous waste disposal program.

Aerosol cans of paint may present a similar problem. Check with your local waste management to find out if aerosol cans are accepted along with other metal cans for recycling, or whether they’re classified as household hazardous waste. Empty aerosol cans are sometimes accepted, but those still containing paint will likely either need to be emptied first or discarded as hazardous waste.

paint can plant holder

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Empty paint cans of any kind can sometimes be recycled along with other metal cans, as long as they’re truly empty and clean. If you’ve completely used up your paint and have empty cans lying around, find out if they’re accepted with curbside recycling in your community. Even if not, empty paint cans can be repurposed in a variety of ways, with a few minor tweaks, turning them into things like hanging planters or birdfeeders.

Ways to Reuse Paint

It may be possible to find other uses for leftover paint without formally recycling it. The simplest way is often to store the paint and then reuse it later yourself. If you do that, make sure the cans are sealed tightly and stored somewhere away from very high or low temperatures—preferably a basement or utility closet, not a garage or garden shed. Also, try to keep paint cans away from excess moisture that might rust them.

If the paint is still useable and in its original container, you could also consider looking for a local charity that accepts paint donations, either to use in its own projects or to recycle and redistribute. Some Habitat for Humanity ReStores accept paint donations, for example, as does the Cincinnati-based Matthew 25: Ministries. Art departments or drama clubs at local high schools or colleges may present another option, as well as community theater groups.