‘Postcode lottery’ means 98% of leftover paint incinerated or sent to landfill – Royal Society of Chemistry

Households across the UK are stockpiling enough paint to coat the Forth Rail Bridge 212 times, posing major sustainability and environmental issues, as revealed by new research from the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Despite spoiling in a matter of months if stored incorrectly, 73% of UK adults have admitted to stashing away pots of unused or partially used decorating paint – 43% of which is more than three years old.

But what many may not know is paint contains hidden chemicals called polymers in liquid formulations (PLFs). These are often made from fossil sources and are important ingredients needed to help paint stick to walls.

Despite containing huge quantities of these specialist ingredients created using non-renewable resources, nearly all (98%) of the UK’s waste paint is either burnt or sent to landfill.

Indeed, only just over a quarter (27%) of UK adults said they have recycled paint they no longer need and 67% don’t know if their local recycling facility will allow them to recycle decorating paint. However, 82% of those surveyed said they probably would use a recycling facility if they had confidence leftover paint could be recycled.

Task force

To help combat this issue, the Royal Society of Chemistry, which has convened a task force to make paint more sustainable, is calling for UK governments to provide better support to local reuse and recycling initiatives, while the companies behind paint brands Dulux, Farrow and Ball, Johnstone’s Paints and Ronseal are calling for government engagement with the British Coatings Federation’s PaintCare blueprint for a national remanufacturing programme.

Professor Tom Welton, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: “We have found that most households have tins of paint languishing in cupboards, sheds and garages – and that while consumers want to be able to recycle, they face a ‘postcode lottery’, making it unnecessarily difficult to do the right thing. All this paint contains huge quantities of valuable polymers in liquid formulations to help it stick to your walls.

“It’s unsustainable to waste such a commodity, and we’re risking environmental damage through not re-using and recycling, so we’re urging consumers to write to their MPs to help highlight this issue.

“Our research shows we are currently producing enough of these polymers to fill Wembley stadium 32 times every year and we are only just beginning to understand where they go after being used.

We urgently need more facilities and ways for people to be able to recycle and reuse unwanted paint so it doesn’t go bad sitting in a shed – or end up incinerated or in landfill

“Industry giants are supporting both the BCF’s PaintCare scheme to make paint more sustainable, and our task force to make polymers more sustainable across eight sectors – but we need government to engage with us, provide better support to circular economy initiatives and invest in a sustainable future for the UK.”

The BCF framework is predicted to increase the percentage of leftover paint re-used, recycled, or re-manufactured from 2% today to 75% by 2030 – which represents 275 million litres of leftover paint.

Celebrity decorator and TV presenter Linda Barker said: “Decorating was a fabulous way for us to cope with lockdowns during the pandemic, but a direct result of that is we’ve been left with an awful lot of unused paint – and while there are some organisations who offer recycling, coverage across the UK is sporadic at best.

“We all have a responsibility to be more sustainable and there is already a huge trend for making more environmentally friendly choices when buying paint, so we know there is a willingness to do this.

“We urgently need more facilities and ways for people to be able to recycle and reuse unwanted paint so it doesn’t go bad sitting in a shed – or end up incinerated or in landfill.”


The RSC’s survey also revealed that 47% of households in the UK redecorated in the last year, with 31% of this group saying that COVID-19 measures provided an ‘excuse’ to redecorate. In total, 73% of adults living in the UK are now storing unfinished tins of paint.

When asked why they stockpiled unused paint, 30% said it seemed a waste to just throw it away, while 73% said they were holding on to excess paint in case it was needed for touch-ups or repainting.

Tom Bowtell, Chief Executive Officer of British Coatings Federation, said: “Our own research echoes that of the RSC and estimates that 55 million litres of waste decorative paint is generated in the UK each year.

“Our PaintCare initiative sees this left-over paint as a valuable resource and plans to recover and reuse it. Consumers and professional painters will be able to take their old paint to their local waste recycling centre or DIY outlet where it would be taken to a paint recycling factory for sorting, mixing and testing to make new paint of the highest quality for re-selling.

Our own research echoes that of the RSC and estimates that 55 million litres of waste decorative paint is generated in the UK each year.

“It’s a closed loop system – paint made from paint. We will also develop sustainable ways to use paint not suitable for remanufacture into new materials such as concrete.”

Earlier this year the Royal Society of Chemistry took a revolutionary look at the sustainability of ingredients found in millions of household products through their report called Polymers in liquid formulations (PLFs): Opportunities for a sustainable future.

The paints industry is just one of eight sectors that PLFs are key ingredients for, and each year more than 36.25 million tonnes of PLFs are used in household and industrial products, from shampoos to washing detergents.

The research reports that investment in innovation, waste management and the circular economy is urgently needed to make this newly-identified group of chemicals more sustainable.

The Royal Society of Chemistry is calling for:

  1. Government and local authorities to provide more support to paint recycling and reuse initiatives, such as BCF’s PaintCare programme, making it easier for consumers to recycle paints no matter where they live
  2. Government to directly invest in research programmes for sustainable alternatives for PLFs
  3. Consumers to reduce wastage of paints by buying only what they need
  4. Consumers to write to their MP asking for change – further details can be found on: rsc li/paints.

In addition to the release of their report, the Royal Society of Chemistry has convened an industry task force to plan a way forward to make PLFs more sustainable. Unilever, BASF, Crown Paints, Croda, Afton Chemical and Scott Bader are among the first to join the task force, with many other organisations across eight key industries including agriculture and cosmetics sharing their expertise.

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