Disposing of wastes generated while painting

Disposing of wastes generated while painting

There are a few generalizations about waste disposal that are universally true. First, it is best for the health of the planet and its inhabitants if the byproducts of our creativity are kept to an absolute minimum and the issue of disposal is avoided entirely. Next, when wastes are produced, the manner of disposal which will have the least negative impact upon the environment should be selected. Finally, the legal requirements for disposal depend upon the nature of the waste produced, where it originates, and who is responsible for it. For example, disposal options will depend in part upon the classification of the waste generator. Wastes generated outside of the household, such as by a small manufacturing business or store, have tighter disposal restrictions. Alternatives will also depend upon how hazardous a waste is, based on reactivity, flammability, toxicity and physical state (solid, liquid, or gas). Most waste is disposed of into either the water, ground, or air. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, state agencies, and local authorities all have regulations affecting such disposal. Questions are best addressed to the local facility first, such as the landfill or water treatment plant.1 Questions about whether or not a material is considered a "hazardous waste" and the best method for its disposal, can also be directed to the manufacturer.


  1. Even with water-based products, it is best to discard a solid instead of washing everything down the drain. Also, liquid paint should not be taken to a landfill. If allowed to dry, film-forming paints such as acrylics lock pigments in place and help prevent them from moving around in the groundwater. Allow residual paints and mediums to dry in the container. Dispose of as is, or remove the subsequent paint skin, leaving a fairly clean container. GOLDEN Acrylics are packaged in HDPE plastic, which can then be reused or recycled in many areas.
  2. Small amounts of solvent-based products, like GOLDEN MSA Varnish, can usually be allowed to evaporate.
    After complete drying, the container can be disposed of in a regular landfill. Significant amounts of these products are considered hazardous wastes and should be taken to a local Hazardous Waste Collection Center. Be careful, some of these limit their service to households and exclude small businesses. An expensive hazardous waste disposal service must then be utilized. In addition to solvent-based products, other art materials which are hazardous when disposed of include etching acids, pressurized aerosol cans, and certain highly toxic pigments. It is best to avoid disposal of these by purchasing only what will be entirely used.
  3. Before using water to clean palettes, brushes, containers and other tools, wipe them with a paper towel and allow it to dry before disposal. This makes the wash water stay cleaner longer and keeps paint solids from going down the drain.
  4. Solids in washwater can be further minimized by removing them with a simple treatment process.
    See Removing Water-Based Paint Solids From Rinse Water for the treatment process.


  1. Purchase products in the optimal container size.
    Buying too small results in more packaging wastes. Buy too much, and you risk having more than can be used or having the product fail during storage.
  2. Use work practices that minimize wasted paint.
    For acrylics, try a moisturizing palette and keep the paint covered as much as possible.
  3. Store products to maximize shelf life.
    Avoid extremes of temperature, especially freeze-thaw cycles. Make sure lids are kept tight. Clean dried paint from the threads of jars and lids before closing to help get a better seal.
  4. If products are still usable, but just aren't needed, give them to someone who can use them.
    If properly labeled and nontoxic, many nonprofit organizations with art and craft programs would appreciate a donation of materials.
  5. Recycle old acrylic paintings.
    Apply a new gesso ground and use them for studies. They are also useful for practicing varnishing techniques and preevaluating the inevitable visual effect a varnish will impart.

1 For an overview of waste disposal regulations, send self-addressed, stamped envelope for Waste Management and Disposal for Artists and Schools, from the Center for Safety in the Arts at NYFA,155 Avenue of the Americas, 14th Floor, NY, NY 10013.

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