Paint is produced with precious fossil fuel derived chemicals, yet two thirds of the public admit to having an unfinished tin of paint spoiling at home, survey reveals

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has today raised the alarm about the environmental and resource impact of paint waste, warning that huge quantities of fossil fuel-derived chemicals found in paint are being dumped into landfill, burnt, or left to spoil in cupboards, sheds, and garages across the country.

Research published this week by the group reveals that 98 per cent of all waste paint in the UK is burnt or sent to landfill, despite paint containing huge quantities of polymers in liquid formulations (PLF), chemicals made from largely from non-renewable feedstocks.

The analysis calculates that more than 50 million litres of paint is currently sitting in households across the country, despite paint spoiling in a matter of months if stored incorrectly. Nearly two thirds of adults surveyed for the research said they were storing unfinished tins of paint, and just over a quarter of adults said they had ever recycled paint.

“We have found that most households have tins of paint languishing in cupboards, sheds and garages – and that while consumers want to be able to recycle, they face a postcode lottery, making it unnecessarily difficult to do the right thing,” said professor Tom Welton, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry. “All this paint contains huge quantities of valuable PLFs to help it stick to your walls. It’s unsustainable to waste such a commodity, and we’re risking environmental damage through not re-using and recycling.”

PLFs are found in millions of consumer and industrial products, from paint to shampoos, detergents, and lubricants, yet there are currently very few ways to recycle the chemical and more than 36.25 million tonnes of PLF are not recovered after use every year, according to the RSC. PLFs can be produced from a variety of raw materials, but the majority of chemicals on the market today are derived from fossil fuel feedstocks.

As such, the RSC has this week called on the government to ramp up investment in research programmes for sustainable alternatives for PLFs and to work with local authorities to provide better support for local paint reuse and recycling initiatives. 

“Our research shows we are currently producing enough of these polymers to fill Wembley stadium 32 times every year and we are only just beginning to understand where they go after being used,” Welton said.

The group is also urging consumers to reduce their paint waste by seeking out local recycling facilities and schemes, giving surplus material to community collection schemes, friends, family or reselling it on online marketplaces.

The RSC’s appeal for action on paint waste comes after it convened an industry task force last May tasked with investigating how the $125bn PLF market could curb its considerable environmental impact and develop a more circular economy. A raft of chemicals and consumer goods firms have signed up to the initiative, including Unilever, BASF, Crown Paints, Croda, Afton Chemical, and Scott Bader.

“Industry giants are supporting both the British Coating Federations’s PaintCare [paint recycling] scheme to make paint more sustainable, and our task force to make polymers more sustainable across eight sectors – but we need government to engage with us, provide better support to circular economy initiatives and invest in a sustainable future for the UK,” Welton said.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was considering a request for comment at the time of going to press.

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