How to Dispose of Paint Safely

By Andrew Krosofsky

Jan. 18 2021, Published 12:32 p.m. ET

There are a number of household items that many Americans just don’t seem to know how to dispose of properly — for instance, many folks are unsure of the best way to dispose of paint. They think that putting it in the bottom of a black garbage bag is the easiest way to surreptitiously get sanitation to take it off their hands. Such behavior isn’t just bad for the environment, it’s also unnecessary, especially when disposing of paint the proper way is so easy.

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Can you throw away paint?

The term “throw away” carries a number of different meanings in this context. Essentially, the ability to throw paint in the garbage like so much other trash depends entirely on the type of paint in question. After reviewing several studies, TIME concluded that all paint is potentially toxic — especially oil-based paints, and especially to vulnerable groups of people, like babies, young children, pregnant people, and the elderly.

Not only are the chemicals and metals in certain paints potentially harmful to the environment, but these compounds can also contaminate soil and water. These paints should never be thrown in the garbage and to do so, in most states, is considered illegal.

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How to Dispose of Paint Safely

Latex-based paints are a bit different. According to Hunker, latex-based paints are generally considered a less toxic option than oil-based paint, though they still can contain some toxic compounds.

Because of that, latex paints are not considered hazardous and can be thrown away in the trash, provided that you follow the guidelines for their disposal. That said, throwing away paint cans isn’t always the most eco-friendly way to get rid of them. There are other options, after all.

How to dispose of paint:

Paint disposal techniques vary depending on the type of paint being thrown away. Here are our recommendations for disposing of both oil- and latex-based paints.

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How to dispose of oil-based paints:

If you have oil-based paints lying around, you’re not going to be able to just toss them in the bin. You’ll need to take them down to your city or county’s household hazardous waste facility. These facilities might only accept specific items on specific days and times, so you’ll need to contact your local municipality to find out when and where this might be happening.

If you live in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, or Washington D.C., you can visit to find out what take-back programs are available in your state.

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How to dispose of latex-based paint:

When disposing of latex-based paint, first, remove the lid and recycle or discard it accordingly. Then, allow the remaining paint to dry out completely. You can hasten this process by mixing cat litter into the paint. Once it is completely dry, you can throw the can in your trash. Most municipalities should not have a problem with this, but be sure to check with your local sanitation department to be sure that they do accept dried, latex paint cans.

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Can paint cans be recycled?

Paint cans can indeed be recycled, but only those that contained latex-based paint. This is because those paints can dry out entirely and be disposed of with normal trash if need be. To recycle latex-based paint cans, simply pour the remaining paint into another vessel and let dry completely before discarding. Then, clean out and place the empty cans in your recycling bin. Again, not all curbside recycling programs readily accept paint cans, so call your town or local sanitation department or municipality to find out what rules or regulations might be in place.

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How to tell if my paint has gone bad?

As a rule, most latex or water-based paints have a shelf life of about 10 years. Oil-based paints last longer, around 15 years, but there are certain ways to tell if your paint has gone bad ahead of that rule of thumb. With latex paint, smell it. If it smells rancid, it’s gone bad. If it’s separated or has a thick layer of skin on top with a thin layer of liquid underneath, stir it. As long as it doesn’t smell and blends together smoothly, you should be good.

Oil-based paint that has been sealed properly and has not been exposed to extreme hot or cold temperatures isn’t really going to go bad the same way latex paint does. With oil-based paints, open them up and remove the top layer of film before stirring it into a homogenous color once more. If it blends well, it will be fine for painting.

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Can I donate my old paint?

Just because you’re done with one particular shade of paint does not mean that the paint is necessarily garbage. So long as the paint has been kept fresh, it might still be useful to someone. There are several charities out there that accept paint donations for families in need or for use in schools and community centers.

Habitat for Humanity Restores, Global Paint for Charity, various homeless or domestic violence shelters, children's charities, scout troops, and drama clubs all have need of paint now and then. So long as your paints are still good, most will happily accept them. You can also post about your leftover paint on Freecycle, a Buy Nothing Facebook group, Facebook Marketplace, or Craigslist.