by Ben Platt June 27, 2022
The clean up is the often dreaded part of any painting project; after you are done with painting for the day you still have to account for the wonderful mess you inevitably made. Even the tidiest of us will still generate a certain minimum of waste. Knowing how best to take care of the paint dregs puts us on the road to being environmentally responsible painters. We are often reminded and always encouraged to be safety-conscious about ourselves when using toxic pigments. Sometimes we forget that we should be paying just as much attention to how we dispose of our paint waste.
In this article we will discuss a few of the ways we can be mindful of how we dispose of the waste water and paint dregs we make when working with water-based paints.
Acrylic, watercolour, gouache and other water-based paints can all be rinsed off a brush in water, whilst palettes can be wiped clean with some paper towel. Excess paint can also be spooned back into pots where possible. Often we will take out water pots, cups or buckets and just up-end it into the sink and rinse the gunk away down the drain. This is a bit naughty in all honesty as that grey swirling murk inside the water is the collected aggregate of the pigments you have cleaned off your brush, as well as any binder. Simply pouring them down the drain is not the best course of action for a few reasons, as all those paint dregs can potentially settle in your piping and cause plumbing problems down the line. If you are using pigments that contain heavy metals such as cobalt and cadmium or other toxic pigments, you are effectively flushing small amounts of those toxic chemicals into the water system, albeit in small amounts. There are many artists in the world and we need to be mindful of our collective footprint in that regard.
Still there are a few methods you can use to dispose of your water-based paint waste responsibly and more safely than pouring it down the drain. These methods mainly concern acrylic paints but any of these methods will work just as well for any water-based paints you might be using.
Leave your paint water to settle until the paint waste collects as a sediment on the bottom of the jar and then carefully pour out most of the excess water, leaving as little as you can without pouring out the waste. Once you have decanted as much water as possible, leave the rest in a well-ventilated place, preferably a warmer one, to evaporate. The paint residue will be left behind and you can scrape the solids from the bottom of the jar. If the gunk has not already hardened, allow it to dry and then dispose of it with your rubbish.
This may sound a touch strange but it is a quick and effective method of getting rid of your dirty paint water quickly. You’ll want a bucket and cheap clumping cat litter- the kind of thing you can get for a couple of quid at somewhere like Tesco or Lidl. Fill the bucket about half way and simply pour your water into the bucket. Any wet areas of the cat litter will clump together and can be easily scooped out and thrown away as solid waste. It's a quick and fairly cheap method for getting rid of your painting waste. Top up your bucket as and when you need.
The strain and drain method is a bit more involved than previous methods but provides good results if you are particularly conscious of looking to minimise your waste. It involves making a filter system over a container for the water to drain into, leaving the paint particles behind. You will need a sieve, colander or a funnel and a very fine-weave material to act as a filter; cheese cloth, fine mesh tights or even large coffee filter paper are suitable for this. Make sure your filter fits snugly into your chosen receptacle and then seat it over a container for the water to drain into. Pour your waste paint water into your filter and leave it to drain as long as it needs for the water to run through. Any paint sediment should collect within the filter, which you can leave to dry and dispose of as solid waste. The method will separate the largest quantity of pigment from the water.
Whilst most pigments used nowadays are non-toxic substances, there are still a handful of potentially harmful substances used in certain paints. Lead, cadmium and cobalt are examples of such pigments. Check with your local council regarding guidelines and regulations for disposing of paints that have potentially toxic pigments in them and adjust your method of disposal accordingly.
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