Planet-friendly paint performance

There’s a growing interest in environmentally friendly paints, but you don’t have to sacrifice performance or looks to achieve environmental benefits, as Earthborn Paints’ Colin Jones explains

Conventional, acrylic-based paints contain two potentially harmful components: volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and acrylic softeners. Both escape into the atmosphere during painting and for many years after application, contributing to greenhouse gases.

These toxic ingredients can also find their way into drains and groundwater when washing out brushes and disposing of paint tins in landfill. They can cause chest complaints, aggravate allergies, and cause sick building syndrome.

Acrylic-based paints can also adversely affect walls. They prevent a wall from breathing, which can lead to moisture damage such as blown plaster.


High levels of VOCs are generally associated with oil-based paints, but they are found to varying degrees even in water-based paints. The EU limit for paints to be classed as minimal VOC is 30g/L. However, this is relatively high and it is advisable to seek out those containing a maximum of just 0.5g/L VOC.

The easiest way to ensure you’re creating a sustainable, environmentally sound specification is to check the paint is EU Ecolabel approved. This stringent standard covers every aspect of a product’s manufacture, use and disposal.

Specifying sustainability

When it came to building a new home for themselves, two partners at Downs Merrifield Architects were determined to stamp sustainability throughout its specification.

Nic and Carolyn found the perfect plot for their home, close to the centre of Cardiff yet tucked quietly away in a leafy corner.

Nic said: “We wanted the house to reflect our environmental principles, with a strong use of timber and energy saving products. It was only natural for us to focus on sustainability of the build, because that is the essence of our new practice.”

Aiming to achieve high quality design and passive house status, Nic and Carolyn’s specification for the timber framed, timber and glass clad home includes very high levels of insulation, airtight construction, whole house ventilation, photovoltaics and large areas of south facing glazing, to maximise solar heat gain.

Carolyn added: “We went to great lengths to ensure that our paint finish complemented the other sustainable aspects of the house. It was important to us that our choice was virtually VOC free, while offering high performance and excellent covering properties. The Ecolabel scheme offers environmental reassurance, so that was our starting point.”

The couple chose an emulsion that had exceptional eco credentials, low odour and hard wearing finish. Every wall and ceiling that doesn’t have ceramic tiles or hardwood cladding has been painted with it.

Paints with Ecolabel approval, such as Ecopro Matt Emulsion, are easy to use, environmentally sound alternatives to conventional emulsions. Ecopro’s formulation, for example, is totally free of oils and acrylics and virtually VOC free and the result is a durable, anti-static, matt finish. Newly decorated rooms can be brought back into use quickly because these paints do not give off any harmful emissions or odours: a point that benefited Nic and Carolyn, who planned additional paintwork.

Nic explains: “After living with white paint throughout the house for several months, we were ready to start choosing colours to enhance certain walls. It was great to move straight back into a room once it was painted, without worrying about any smells or emissions.”

Keeping it natural

When self-builder Joe Shimbart set out to build his dream home he knew that he wanted to live in a house made of natural materials.

He chose an oak frame with external walls constructed of environmentally friendly hempcrete. This lightweight, breathable, insulating material is made from a mixture of lime and the shredded core of industrial hemp.

Speaking of his three-bedroom home in Hampshire, Joe said: “I didn’t want to wrap the oak frame in man-made materials, so I chose breathable hempcrete for the walls and finished them internally with lime plaster and a breathable paint. The breathability is essential – conventional ‘plastic’ paints seal the walls and don’t allow that.

“I always do a lot of research before making any specification choice. Claypaint stood out because of its outstanding breathability and beautiful matt finish. It looks great on lime plaster, creating a warm, homely effect.”

Clay based emulsions such as this maximise the natural properties of clay to create a high performance, highly breathable paints that cover exceptionally well and give a distinctive, ‘ultra matt’ finish.

Being free of oils and acrylics, they’re virtually VOC free and do not give off any toxic emissions. They can have various eco credentials – for example the stringent EU Ecolabel.

Joe added: “The lack of emissions meant I never felt nauseous when using the paint, unlike with acrylic paints in the past. In practical terms, it was easy to use. We only needed two coats to achieve full coverage and, because it is water based, brushes were easy to wash out.”

Colin Jones is technical sales manager at Earthborn Paints