Acrylic Paint Environmental Effects
Just because something is “better” for the environment than the alternative or is labelled “non-toxic” does not mean it cannot have a negative impact. Consider all the make-up that we wear that is considered non-toxic but that we are now finding out cause problems in our bodies or that vinegar is better for the environment but can still kill weeds when you pour it on them. That lead me to wonder about acrylic paint environmental effects.
Shortly after Painting on the Prairies began to take off I became concerned with two aspects of the business that I thought impacted the environment: the amount of garbage created by cups, plates and paper towels and how the left over paint and paint water might affect our water and soil. I began my research on the environmental impacts of acrylic paint near the end of 2015 and I found very quickly that there are just as many people who say there is no problem with dumping the water down the drain as there are who say that you should never dump it down the drain. Most of the information I found stated that acrylic paint was more environmentally friendly because it was water based and yet the consensus was to let left over acrylic paint dry out before throwing it away.
I’ve spent hours and hours doing online searches, emailing environmental companies and calling waste water facilities to discover the impact of acrylic paint and waste water disposal on the environment. The more I dug, the more I found a lack of scientifically reliable information and a lot of conflicting and controversial opinions and information. The more I read, the more I came to feel like no one really knows for sure how acrylic paint might affect the environment after it is disposed of because no one has ever done any real research and experimentation on it.
What my research found
First, I learned that there is a widely believed misconception that because acrylic paint is water-based and non-toxic, it is not a chemical. I have heard this misinformation from people at paint parties and seen online discussions about it! The truth is, acrylic paint is made from a synthetic resin binder called acrylic polymer emulsion (basically liquid plastic) which is a chemical produced by a chemical process, the thickeners, defoamers, preservatives and other additives are chemicals and even the synthetic pigments used to make the colors are chemicals.1 They may be present in small enough quantities that they can be labelled non-toxic and non-hazardous, but they are still there. I realized this personally when I started to notice that my skin was reacting to the paint as I became overexposed to it.
Another misunderstood concept is that just because acrylic paint is water soluble doesn’t mean that is dissolves into the water to become a solution (when the particles dissolved in the liquid cannot be separated out). It is actually a suspension (the particles dissolved in the liquid will settle out).2 This can easily be observed when you leave a jar of paint water for a few days because you will start to see the paint solids settle to the bottom.
I started to find information that confirmed my suspicions that it was not a good idea to be pouring large amounts of paint water down the drain, especially not in the ground, and that throwing it in the garbage as solid waste was a much better alternative.3 The Winnipeg Water and Waste Department confirmed for me that even though pouring acrylic paint water down the drain is not best practice, if it is part of a public sewer system, you can get away with it in small quantities because the treatment facility does treat the water in a way that removes it. It is the quantity that can create a problem for sewer lines and water treatment facilities because large amounts of it can build up to block sewer lines and complicate the filtering processes. Surprisingly, even the Winnipeg Water and Waste Department couldn’t give me any solid information on how the acrylic waste impacts waterways.
These days we are all aware that plastic pollution is one of the biggest concerns for our environment and so I assumed pouring liquid plastic (acrylic paint) into the ground must contaminate water and soil, right? Astonishingly, there is very little information available on this. Upon reading the Material Safety Data Sheets of several common student acrylic paints,4 I found a wide discrepancy and lack of information in the environmental and disposal sections among them. My overall interpretation of the accumulated information was that they are not considered harmful to the environment but that you should not allow it to enter the ground, waterways or drains and should dispose of it in accordance to local laws or regulations. Also, while they say it is not environmentally harmful there is “no data available” when you get to the specifics of how it affects water, soil, plants and animals. Many hours of searching didn’t get me any closer to more reliable information or a definitive answer. The only other information that gave me a push in the direction I had already decided to go was that septic field guidelines say not to pour acrylic paint waste water into them because it upsets their biology and chemistry.5 Also, the environmental waste processing facilities I contacted recommend letting all acrylic paint waste dry out before throwing in the garbage or dropping it off to them for proper disposal.
Finally, a solution!
I finally came across some YouTube videos and step-by-step instructions on a couple of websites (including acrylic paint company Golden Acrylic6) that had a process for separating the acrylic paint from the water before filtering it and disposing of the water. Then you let the left-over paint sludge dry out before throwing it out. Once I stumbled upon this method I found it is a pretty common practice among environmentally friendly or concerned artists around the world. I decided to purchase reusable cups, plates and towels so that they could be washed and reused to cut down on the amount of garbage paint parties created and I started on a path of several months of experimentation in my garage to implement a system that would efficiently process all the waste water I created before disposal. I now contain all my waste water, which includes the water you dump out at a party, the water in the buckets that I use to soak my cloths and the water I use to soak and wash the brushes and plates in. I save it all up in a big bucket and after each party I do a process called coagulation and flocculation to separate all the paint out of the water ensuring that the pH levels do not drop bellow sewer system level allowances. Then I filter the water through a coffee filter lined sieve, dump the clear water down the drain and allow the left-over paint sludge to dry out in the coffee filter before I put it in the garbage. I filter out up to 3 cups of paint sludge from the waste water of 30 painters! I also scrape all the left-over paint from the palettes into old containers to be dropped off at a hazardous waste management facility. Yes, it is a lot of extra work to have to wash all the plates, cups and cloths and the filtering process is time consuming but to me it is worth it to make sure I am not polluting the environment.
I am not a scientist, but I read everything that I could get my hands on and called everyone I could think of so that I could make an informed decision about how I dispose of paint and paint water waste to ensure Painting on the Prairies doesn’t negatively impact the environment. I can’t say that I found definitive answers on the effects of acrylic paint on the environment or that I am positive that my chosen disposal method is the best one, but I can tell you that after all my hours of research I was not comfortable pouring the paint water down the drain or into the ground and I didn’t feel comfortable throwing away gobs of unused paint into the garbage to go to the landfill.
Painting on the Prairies is committed to be the most environmentally friendly paint party provider possible. When it comes down to it, I would rather err on the side of caution and do my part now, then find out in a hundred years that the accumulation of disposed acrylic paint has had some unseen dire effect on the environment for future generations. It is in my humble opinion that there is a lack of information on this subject and the information that is available is vague, contradictory and incomplete. More research is needed to understand the environmental impact acrylic paint might have but based on the information that I collected over the last 2 years I am not convinced that acrylic paint will prove to have no impact if that research becomes available.
Happy Paint Partying!
- http://www.essentialchemicalindustry.org/materials-and-applications/paints.html; http://www.substech.com/dokuwiki/doku.php?id=composition_of_paints; http://www.explainthatstuff.com/howpaintworks.html
- http://scienceline.ucsb.edu/getkey.php?key=521; http://www.differencebetween.net/science/difference-between-suspension-and-solution/
- http://opusartsupplies.com/how/product-qa/acrylics-best-practices; https://blog.mosaicartsupply.com/how-to-dispose-of-acrylic-paint-rinse-water/; https://www.goldenpaints.com/waste-disposal;
- http://chromacryl.com/material-safety-data-sheets/; https://images.utrechtart.com/Content/pdf/MSDS/912%203%20Studio%20Series%20Acrylic%20SDS%202017%2003%2007.pdf; http://www.hospitalart.org/media/wysiwyg/paint_info/MATERIAL_SAFETY_DATA_SHEET-Americana_Paint-1.pdf; https://www.liquitex.com/uploadedFiles/Content/Resources/Safety/MSDS_Sheets/SAFETY%20DATA%20SHEET-13388-1-1.pdf
- https://www.gov.mb.ca/waterstewardship/reports/water_protection_handbook.pdf; http://www.coppolaservices.com/septic-system-operation/; http://www.bernards.org/green%20team/Document/Green%20At%20Home/Homeowner%20Manual%20For%20Septic%20Systems.pdf;