How to Dispose of Paint

How to Safely and Properly Get Rid of Leftover Paint

Paintbrush balancing on open tins of paint, overhead view, close-up
Martin Poole / Getty Images

Paint (and learning how to paint walls) is an inexpensive and easy way to update and add color to your home. Paint is such a versatile tool that it’s easy to inadvertently accumulate extra cans of it over the years. Unfortunately, paint isn't easy to recycle, and you shouldn't just throw it in the garbage for environmental reasons. The good news is, you can get rid of your growing collection of partially used paint cans and old paint safely and responsibly in just a few steps.

Can You Throw Away Paint?

No—improperly disposing of paint can be problematic and, in many cases, illegal. Some paint, like oil-based paints, is considered a household hazardous waste. Dumping any type of paint down the drain causes groundwater, lake, or stream pollution, and it can cause problems in your plumbing system, especially if you have a septic tank. Moreover, many garbage collection services do not allow wet paint in trash collection cans.

How to Dispose of Paint

The proper way to dispose of unwanted paint depends on the type of paint. There are three paint types used in household DIY projects: oil, latex, or spray paint. Before you toss out your paint, it's important to know what type of paint it is.

How to Determine Paint Type

An obvious way to determine the type is from the paint label. However, if the label is missing or you have a can from a previous homeowner and the label on the can does not clearly identify the paint type, here's an easy test you can do. Dip a paint brush into the paint, then try rinsing it in a cup of water. If the paint comes off the brush, it’s latex. If it doesn’t, it’s oil-based. Spray paint will be in an aerosol can.

How to Dispose of Latex Paint

Water-based latex paint is the most popular paint used in homes because it’s relatively inexpensive and very versatile. Since it's water-based, it dries quickly, and clean-up is simple. Thankfully, latex paints are not considered hazardous and can be thrown away in the trash if you follow a few guidelines. It's a good idea to do this in a well ventilated area and wear a pair of disposable gloves to protect your skin.

  1. Remove the lid and allow the paint to dry, then discard the lid separately in the trash. If you want to recycle the lid, rinse the paint off the lid first, let it dry, then put it into your recycle bin.
  2. Allow the remaining paint in the can to dry out, then place the can in your garbage. Paint cans less than 1/3 full can take several days to dry out. If the paint can is more than 1/3 of the way full, try pouring some of the paint into a cardboard box or in another small container such as a coffee can or ice cream bucket and let it dry. If you have a mostly full can of paint, consider donating it. 
  3. Paint cans are recyclable. If you want to recycle the metal can, pour the remaining paint into a cardboard box and let it dry completely. Once dried, place the empty can in the recycling bin and toss the cardboard box in the trash. The cardboard can not be recycled once it has paint on it.

Tip

Mixing kitty litter or another absorbent material into the paint can absorb the leftover paint, helping it dry more quickly. Latex paint hardening products are also sold at your local home center or hardware store for this purpose.

How to Dispose of Oil-Based Paint

Oil-based paints and stains are considered hazardous because they contain chemicals that can contaminate soil and water. They should never be thrown in the trash. In many states, it's illegal to do so. These paints must always be disposed of at a local Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) collection site or hazardous waste collection events. If these paints are not correctly disposed of, they can leak into the ground or contaminate septic tanks. You can find a hazardous waste drop-off facility in your area at Earth911.com or check with your local county or city waste management department.

How to Dispose of Spray Paint

Like latex paint, you can dispose of spray paint cans once they are empty. There are no federal regulations concerning how aerosol can waste generated in homes can be disposed of, but there are a few things you can do to keep them from ending up in landfills. Wear a respirator or work in a well ventilated area while performing this task. Additionally, it's a good idea to wear disposable gloves to protect your skin.

  1. Empty the cans. If you have leftover paint you do not plan to use, spray the excess on a piece of cardboard until the product stops coming out and the can stops making a hissing noise. 
  2. Let the paint on the cardboard dry, then discard in the trash.
  3. Remove the plastic nozzle and recycle it, along with the plastic lid.
  4. The metal can is also recyclable if your curbside or local recycling center accepts empty aerosol cans. Check with your municipal's website to learn about what's accepted for recycling.

Alternative Paint Disposal Options 

Tossing paint in the garbage or recycling is not the only solution for disposing of paint. Here are some environmentally friendly alternatives for using up the excess paint. 

Donate the Paint

Ask friends, family, or even local community centers if they need paint. If not, organizations like Habitat for Humanity accept leftover paint to sell at one of their stores. 

Recycle Paint

There are companies that accept leftover paint and recycle it. The International Paint Recycle Association lists multiple companies that will take paint for recycling. There may be shipping and other processing fees involved.

Tip

Buy less paint! If you do not want to deal with unwanted paint at the end of a project, buy less. Buy the paint in smaller containers to ensure you do not have extra when the project is complete.