Paint like a green pro

Gabe Luna founded green contractor MoonDance Painting in the San Francisco Bay Area after working for one of the largest residential painting companies in California—and finding the massive waste, improper disposal of toxic materials, and exposure to hazardous chemicals intolerable. Here’s his advice on avoiding the biggest environmental and health pitfalls of painting projects.

Site preparation

1. Use nontoxic cleaners to prepare surfaces.

Most cleaners used in the painting industry contain ammonia or bleach. These chemicals are not only harmful to your lungs, they can also contaminate soil and kill plants. Nontoxic alternatives accomplish the same goal without the negative impact.

2. Never sand dry lead paint.

The main problem with lead is the particles that get released when dry lead-based paint is scraped or sanded. I deal with lead-based paint in three steps: first, lay down thick plastic sheeting; second, use a squirt bottle to lightly wet down surfaces that may contain lead; and third, scrape and sand the surfaces while they are still wet. For more information about lead paint removal, consult the EPA’s "Renovate Right" brochure.

Materials selection

1. Use quality tools—they pay off in the long run.

Spend the extra money on tools that will last. Instead of buying a cheap $4 brush, spend $15 to get one that applies paint better and can be reused for future projects. Quality roller covers made of sheepskin can be cleaned and reused time after time; they also produce a better finish.

2. Buy premium materials if you want premium quality.

Homeowners and contractors often purchase the cheapest paint and other materials, such as caulking and spackle. This short-term savings ends up costing the homeowner longevity. Materials for a paint job typically account for no more than 12 percent of the total cost, so buying paint that covers better and is more durable results in only a modest rise in the overall cost. And the added expenditure is offset by time savings—paints that cover better require fewer coats to hide old paint.

3. Use low- or no-VOC interior paints.

Traditional paints contain many contaminants that harm indoor air quality. When shopping for “green” paint, look for products approved by a third-party certifier such as Green Seal, and make sure that the VOC levels are measured after the tints are added. 


1. Take extra paint to a disposal site.

Paint is considered a hazardous material and should be disposed of accordingly. Many states now offer paint recycling drop-off locations through the PaintCare program. If yours does not, every city has a dump that handles toxic waste disposal, and that’s where you take your leftovers. If you’re not doing the work yourself, ask your painting contractor how they dispose of waste and extra paint (you may get some interesting answers).

2. Painting wastewater is best treated by the sewage system.

Because painting wastewater is toxic, you should clean all tools and brushes in a bucket instead of in your yard or in a sink. Dispose of the dirty water in your toilet or outside your house at the “mushroom cap” where your water lines meet the sewer system. We use a three-bucket cleaning process and take the dirtiest wastewater (in the first bucket) from our projects to the toxic waste disposal site.