Collecting Color

Although the message that paint doesn't belong in the trash is getting out to consumers, there still is no set approach on how to deal with unwanted paint. Some communities ask customers to dry out paint cans before disposal, while others hold hazardous material drop-off days a few times a year. But San Francisco's approach to dealing with the problem is unique.

San Franciscans can drop off up to 15 gallons per carload of unwanted house paint, free of charge, at the city's drive up Household Hazardous Waste Facility — and they don't even have to get out of their car. The facility, which is open three days a week and is operated by SF Recycling & Disposal Inc., a subsidiary of Norcal Waste Systems, takes in 30,000 gallons of paint annually. Only San Francisco residents can use the facility.

After receiving the paint, workers immediately separate it by type. Any oil-based paint is shipped to companies that burn it to generate electricity. Far more common is latex paint, about 20 percent of which is too rusty or moldy to recycle and winds up as a binder for cement. The remaining latex paint deemed salvageable is then carefully re-mixed.

Depending on its color, the latex paint is poured over a screen into one of three 55-gallon drums. Blues, grays and greens go into the cool drum. Beige hues make it into the off-white barrel, and reds, tans and browns end up in the warm container. Without sorting, the resulting paint would always end up a light brown hue.

The three color categories can be custom mixed into many more colors. The end product — hundreds of five-gallon buckets of house paint — is available free to San Francisco residents. But local demand for the paint is limited because many residents assume that recycled paint is inferior to virgin paint. This is a misconception, says Norcal's Paul Fresina, who oversees the center. “Because aged paint has developed a higher solids content over time, it actually covers better than virgin paint.”

To find a use for this reclaimed paint, the mostly immigrant employees at the center proposed sending some of it back to their home countries. So in 1995 the first shipment of more than 700 5-gallon buckets of paint was sent to Tonga. Since then, similar shipments have made their way, free of charge to the recipients, to San Salvador, El Salvador; Tepatitlan (or Tepa), Los Cabos and Santiago, Mexico; and Mali. The paint is used for schools, churches and other community buildings.

In its most recent shipment last November, Norcal sent 731 buckets of paint equaling 3,655 gallons to Durango, Mexico. As with past donations, workers from the facility paid their own way to travel to Durango to verify the paint's arrival at its intended location.

The cost of shipping the reprocessed paint depends on its destination. In 2002, a container of 700 5-gallon buckets cost $3,000 to ship to Los Cabos, Mexico. In 1998, a similar shipment to Mali in southwest Africa cost $7,000. In both cases, Norcal says that it, not its local customers, picked up the shipping costs. Moreover, the company notes, sending paint to Mexico and other nearby countries is often cheaper than shipping it to a cement factory in Los Angeles, where it is assessed a $130 per barrel disposal fee.
Paul Kilduff is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

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