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Product Guide

Paint Options for Green Builders

From low- and no-VOC options to low-CO2 manufacturing to recycling, here's what today's paint manufacturers have to offer

My first encounter with paint came from reading the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, who famously had to atone for misbehavior by whitewashing his Aunt Polly’s fence. The whitewash used in Tom’s time likely consisted of two ingredients: lime and water. It was used to paint barns because animals could lick it without ill effects. At the same time, it also had mild antiseptic qualities to discourage bacteria. Whitewash is a traditional, eco-friendly coating and has zero volatile organic compounds (VOCs). In other words, it’s green paint.

Some of today’s most sustainable paint options seek to recreate these coatings, used long ago. That’s where we’ll start this look at the paints that are available to green builders today. Since these “organic” paints are lesser-known brands, we’ll then take a look what some of the more well known brands have to offer. We’ll take a deeper dive into VOCs—for those who are interested, a look at some green-washing in the industry, and finally paint safety, and proper disposal.

With the term “organic,” paint manufacturers refer to the use of naturally occurring ingredients with little adulteration. One example is milk-based paint, which combines milk and lime. The red barns that dot the Midwest derive their characteristic color from a blend of whey, lime, and red iron oxide, used as a preservative. The iron rusted into the iconic, deep red color of these structures.

Today, Real Milk Paint Company manufactures a line of milk-based paint they claim is organic, non-toxic, and durable for exterior and interior application.

“We use natural ingredients, some even pharmaceutical grade,” Dwayne Siever, owner, and founder of the company told me in an email. Although Siever doesn’t recommend you put it in your cornflakes, he insists his paints are “safe for…

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