WALL STREET JOURNAL APRIL 11 2006
More Homeowners Go Green with Eco-Friendly Paints
- Mae Joyce knows the house-painting drill: Move the furniture, let the painters in, then leave town for the weekend to escape the fumes.
But when she recently freshened up the walls, she didn't even leave the house. Ms. Joyce had the crew apply a paint that was low in odors and toxins. "I could sleep in my bedroom the day it was painted," says the homemaker in Los Angeles.
Pick a color, any color -- as long as it's green. Homeowners are giving a new look to paints that either promise fewer fumes and toxins, or have been recycled from leftover paint cans. Though so-called eco-friendly paints have long had a rap as inferior to the old-fashioned stuff -- for tepid colors, uneven consistency and questionable durability -- makers are rolling out what they say are improved versions. Ingredients include everything from reformulated chemicals to donut powder and yogurt.
In October, Sherwin-Williams launched its Duration Home interior latex paint, the second product in its GreenSure line, in 1,400 colors. Last year, Yolo Colorhouse of Portland, Ore., debuted a line it bills as "an environmentally responsible paint with a natural palette" in colors like Air and Petal. (It costs $35 to $39 a gallon, compared with about $25 to $35 for higher-end hardware store paint.) Even Robert Redford is weighing in. In January, his Sundance Catalog began selling the $25-a-gallon Prairie Paint line, mixed from leftover paints, with six colors including Wine and Hemp. Overall, Green Seal, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., that certifies products and services based on a list of environmental standards, now lists 88 paints, nearly double the number in 2004.
Standard paint contains solvents called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that help give it consistency and texture when wet. As the paint dries, the solvents are released into the air, giving off that new-paint smell -- and contributing to smog and pollution. In green paint, the solvents are reduced or eliminated, replaced with synthetic "binders" that aren't toxic.
The category is a bright spot in the $20 billion a year paint business, which has seen slowing growth lately. Shipments grew 6.7% last year, down from 7.5% growth in 2004, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Since its debut a year ago, Yolo has generated more than half a million dollars in sales. Benjamin Moore in Montvale, N.J., has seen double-digit sales growth annually over the past five years in its Eco Spec line. Sales of the Horizon coating from Rodda Paint in Portland, Ore., have tripled every year since its introduction in 2002. "It's our fastest growing market and product by far," says Todd Braden, the company's vice president of marketing.
Still, manufacturers have some convincing to do. Painters say that the low-toxin varieties tend to dry quickly, making it hard to apply them evenly -- and adding a new element of drama to watching paint dry. They have also found that the surface isn't as hard, leaving the paint less durable.
Green Seal doesn't recommend using the paints in high-traffic areas or on baseboards, doors and floors. It also says repainting more often could cancel out the benefit of lower solvent levels. "If you have to paint three times as often, you may not be doing much for the environment," says Arthur Weisman, president of Green Seal.
There's one advantage for painters, at least. This past winter, Michael Connor, a contractor in Hamilton, Ontario, painted one office in a low-toxin paint. Two weeks later, his customer called to say that it was scuffing too easily, and brought him in for a redo -- at a cost of $16,000. "It keeps me pretty well occupied," he says. In all, he says he has tested dozens of eco-friendly paints given to him by manufacturers. "Only 50% of them work for me," he says
A New Molecule
Manufacturers say the latest formulas are more attractive and easier to use than previous versions, thanks to new molecular structures they've developed. Sherwin-Williams says its new low-odor Duration Home line is more scruff-resistant and longer-lasting than even its regular interior coatings.But consumers may find it's not easy being green. Starre Vartan writes a "green lifestyle" blog and buys used furniture because she's worried about airborne chemicals that might come from new glues. But when she went looking for a low-odor, low-toxin paint in deep red last year for her dining room in Norwalk, Conn., she found mostly beiges and pastels. After two weeks, she gave up and bought a regular latex paint. "I'm sacrificing a little bit for beauty," she says.
A client of Doug Dingwall, a painter in Bellevue, Wash., had a similar experience. She had requested environmentally friendly paints because of chemical sensitivities, in a home that uses natural denim for insulation and chemical-free wood in the cabinets. The homeowner thought the colors lacked depth, so she chose regular paint instead, Now, she will wait a month after painting before moving in. Mr. Dingwall generally charges 15% more for using the eco-paint, partly because it's harder to spread on the wall and partly because he thinks it attracts a certain clientele. "People who want a low-VOC are probably kind of picky," he says.
The new paints are sometimes more expensive -- on average, $3 more a gallon, according to manufacturers. One of the priciest options is from Anna Sova Luxury Organics, a company that started in 2004 in Dallas. The paint counts milk protein, donut powder and bamboo fibers among its ingredients, and costs up to $69 a gallon. "We don't recommend eating it," says spokeswoman Lorraine Bryda, "but you could."
One reason manufacturers are bringing out the new paints is government regulation. Since 1999, federal law has capped VOC content in paints at 250 grams per liter, about one-third what paint contained 30 years ago. (Low-VOC paint typically has less than 50 grams per liter.) More recently, states and cities have enacted their own restrictions; California will ban most paint with over 50 grams of VOCs per liter starting in July. Recycled paint, which is made from leftovers and generally not lower in VOCs, is a smaller part of the market. Unlike low-toxin versions, it can have a distinct scent, as Heather Ferrigan recently found when she opened a can that she had bought, in Barn Red, to paint her hallway. "It had a rotten-egg smell," says the teacher's aide from Banks, Ore. Her husband wasn't thrilled about it, either. "It wore on him." (The maker says that the smell is from mold that grows as unused cans sit around.) Still, she was happy with the results and recently bought another 25 gallons in off-white for her other walls. "It's kind of like the idea of organic food," she says. "You feel better for it."