House Remix

Nationwide, communities are turning leftover paint into a liquid asset.

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You could call it latex gumbo. At the nonprofit New Orleans Mid-City Green Project, artist Sandra Evans takes unwanted latex paint donated by locals, reblends it, and fills orders for a pastiche of hues, from lavender and dove gray to sunset peach and pistachio. Since 1994, the program has sold close to 8,000 gallons — paint that otherwise might be decorating a landfill.

“People in New Orleans take a lot of pride in maintaining the old housing,” says Evans, who moves more than 30 gallons of remixed paint a day at $4 to $6 a pop. “Each home is a piece of art here.”

The notion of secondhand paint wasn’t exactly born on the bayou. Many cities across the United States have paint reuse programs. Called paint exchanges, or paint swaps, they’re not only a resourceful way to get rid of unwanted paint or replenish your palette, they’re also a good stroke for the environment.

Unwanted latex paint, a big part of the 8.4 pounds of waste paint the typical American household produces each year, need not be trashed. Disposal is complicated — done improperly (e.g., poured down a sink or storm drain) it can contaminate groundwater and endanger aquatic life. And even when handled properly, through household hazardous waste programs, paint disposal is shamefully expensive — costing taxpayers up to $6 per gallon.

What to do? Get latex paint out of the waste stream. Homes, public buildings, park benches, murals, doghouses, tree forts — all have been coated with hand- me-down paints. Sometimes the paints are mixed to form new colors, other times they’ re left as is.

Such is the case in Bedford, Indiana, where the county runs a paint exchange from an old train depot. Residents simply drop off unwanted paint at the station like relatives who have overstayed their visit. Whatever is usable goes onto a shelf in the original container. Anyone is welcome to stop by, peer into the cans, and take what they need free of charge. “We’re never overstocked,” says Janica Felsher of the Lawrence County Solid Waste District. “We have a lot of rental property owners because they really don’t care about the color.”

In Mundelein, Illinois, residents celebrate Earth Day with a paint swap. Any leftover latex paint is dumped into a 50-gallon drum where it’s all mixed together. The resulting beige gruel is there for the taking. “Some years we’ll give away 150 gallons,” says event organizer Larry Idstein. And while this color wouldn’t appear on most designer swatches, it makes for great primer.

Like programs in other cities, the express purpose of San Diego’s Paint Exchange Bank is to provide homeowners with a means to conceal graffiti. “A lot of people who call are from the heavily hit parts of the city, and they can’t afford to keep up with the taggers,” says paint exchange “banker” W.D. Dauphin Jr. “The scenario is usually the same: Someone paints their house on Monday and they get graffiti on Tuesday.”

Not all paints are reuse-friendly. While water-based latex paints are generally safe to handle, most paint exchanges don’ t accept oil- or solvent-based products because of safety concerns (such as accidental inhalation and flammability).

To find a paint exchange in your area, contact local waste departments, recycling organizations, or paint retailers. If no program exists, donate leftover latex paint to churches, schools, theater groups, or charities such as Habitat for Humanity. If you want to organize a paint swap, both the National Paint & Coatings Association in Washington, D.C., and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in Portland offer handbooks.

“Sure it’s a ‘Sanford and Son’ kind of thing,” says Bill Gross, a New Orleans property owner who uses recycled paint to spiff up his low-income rentals. ” But with the savings from the cost of the paint, we’re able to take the time to dress up the buildings and make them look better.”

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