In the era of buzzwords, VOC-free is a popular one among paint companies. But how accurate is it?
Paint is made up of a number of components. Some of these may be of natural origin (such as minerals, chalk, clays or natural oils), other components (such as binders, pigments and additives) are more often synthetically-derived from different industrial chemical processes. All these components need to undergo some degree of washing, refinement, processing or chemical treatment, so they can be successfully used to make paint. These production steps necessitate the use of different process aids, including substances that are classed as VOCs. Although every effort is made to remove these VOCs through drying and purifying, there will still be trace amounts in the finished raw materials that are used to make the paint and the tinting pastes that are needed to be used. Therefore, there is no such thing as a truly 100% VOC-free or Zero VOC paint, as all paints will contain very small (trace) amounts of VOCs through their raw materials.
Given that no paint is truly VOC-free, the paint industry across Europe (as represented through their trade association CEPE) agreed in March 2013 not to use Zero VOC claims in the promotion of their products. Similarly, all the major UK manufacturers of decorative paints, who are members of the British Coatings Federation (BCF), confirmed the same position in November 2015. The BCF statement also emphasised the point that companies using Zero VOC claims are not following the UK Government’s guidance on green claims, which refers to the need for companies to make ‘clear, accurate, relevant and substantiated claims’ to avoid misleading consumers.
Unfortunately, there are several paint suppliers in the UK that are persisting with the use of Zero VOC / VOC-free claims for their products, despite the industry’s best efforts to bring the issue to their attention. Several media articles have referred to paint below a certain VOC content (e.g. paints containing less than 0.2% VOC), being regarded as VOC-free, however this is incorrect and is certainly not a recognised approach within the UK paint industry or in Europe. The mis-use of Zero VOC terminology in the US is also having an impact on the UK coatings sector, as they commonly label any paints with less than 5g / litre as ‘Zero VOC’ products, and some companies are importing such paints into the UK market. The use of these claims for paints is therefore both incorrect and unjustifiable – there is no definition for ‘VOC-free’, nor recognised analytical test that can be used to demonstrate a paint as having zero VOC content. Therefore, members of the public continue to be mis-led when purchasing their ‘Zero VOC’ paint, which is not free of VOCs and consequently is not proven to be any better for the environment than other decorative paints on the market.
In conclusion, the message to consumers is to take a minute to consider whether they’ve chosen the right paint for the job, and that whatever claims associated with the product, especially regarding the impact on the environment, are accurate and can be justified.