Think back to your last home improvement project—remodeling, painting your house, changing the color of a room. Did you have leftover paint? If so, what happened to it? Statistics show that consumers buy approximately two gallons of paint for every person in the U.S. annually. And most projects have leftovers. Many people throw it out or pour it down the drain—and most don’t realize that paint is a hazardous material.

Lots of leftover paint winds up in landfills. Enough paint has been disposed of in this way to cause worry. It also gets poured down the drain. The problem with this is that both oil-based and latex-based paints have harmful chemicals that sewage treatment facilities can’t remove. They go straight into our groundwater, waterways, and oceans. For you next home improvement project, here’s some advice on how to minimize your waste paint—and what to do with the leftovers.

Don’t buy more than you need. Many people buy extra paint just in case they run out. To cut down on waste paint, do your best to buy accurately. How much paint you’ll need may depend on the material your wall is made of and the colors you’re covering up, as well as how much square-foot space you’ll need to cover. Buy only the paint you’ll use. A salesperson at your local paint store should be able to help you figure out how many gallons your project will need.

If there’s an inch left in the can—use it. Instead of throwing out or storing an inch or two of leftover paint, put it on your wall. This will save you the storage space as well as help the environment.

Use leftover paint as a base coat. Instead of using a primer coat, consider painting over your old color with some leftover paint before putting the new color on. This works particularly well if your old color is bright and difficult to conceal, and if your leftover paint is a neutral color. This may save you a second coat of your new color.

Make your old paint last. Paint can stay fresh for years if it’s sealed the right way. To do this, put a sheet of plastic wrap over the top of your paint can, then seal the can and store it upside down. This creates an airtight seal that locks the paint in, keeping it from getting crusty and unusable. The plastic layer makes it easier for you to open the can again when you need to.

Donate unwanted leftovers. If you’ve got a lot of leftover paint, there are plenty of places that would love to take it off your hands. A high school drama department or community theatre group may be grateful for it—all colors of paint are useful in building sets. Your local Habitat for Humanity, church or synagogue, or another charity may want it as well. If all else fails, put up a post on an online classified site like Craigslist.org. You shouldn’t have trouble finding someone who’s on the lookout for free paint.

Recycle your paint. If you can’t find anyone to take your leftover paint, and don’t want to keep it for the next project, recycle it. Not all recycling depots take paint, so contact your local recycling depot before you take your paint over. Paint cans are made of steel, and they are also recyclable. They’ll need to be rinsed completely and dried before a recycling depot will take them. Many cities have paint recycling programs that will pick up your paint for you and reuse it—check with your city’s recycling department for more details.

Dispose of your paint carefully. If you have no recycling program in your state, seriously consider hanging on to your leftover paint until you can find someone who wants it. In many states, it’s actually illegal to throw paint in the trash because of the damage it does to oceans and drinking water. However, it’s relatively safe to dispose of latex-based paints if they are dried out first—they are more hazardous in liquid form. You should also give your community’s local hazardous waste coordinator or recycling department a call, to ask about regulations and laws in your area regarding paint disposal. Oil-based paints should not be thrown out in the trash.

For more information about paint disposal, check out this website maintained by the paint industry: http://www.paint.org/. It contains information on how to set up a paint swap in your neighborhood, frequently asked questions about paint disposal and recycling, and more.

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