Dear Umbra,

A friend of mine is a painter. He is concerned about the environment and has been trying to find out how to dispose of his paint buckets, extra paint, and other supplies in a way that is eco-friendly, but he’s come up with nothing. We live in Chicago, and you would think that a huge city like this would have places to dispose of these kinds of things … any advice?

Chicago, Ill.

Dearest Erin,

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Uh, this question is related to the winter holidays because sometimes people like to paint the town red over New Year’s.

It’s easy to cast out the Devil, and other paints too.

Photo: Bree Bailey

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Sounds as though your pal is a house painter, not a visual artist, so I will go forth on that basis. The huge city of Chicago does have places to dispose of hazardous paint supplies.

Oil-based paint, and the solvents used to make and clean oil-based paint, are always considered household hazardous waste. Large municipalities such as Chicago usually have HHW disposal sites, days, or events, at which individuals can jettison their various hazardous junk. I found information about Chicago’s programs at, by searching for paint disposal using your zip code. If your friend is a one-person business, I think he probably is permitted to dispose of his goods in HHW collection (although he might want to lie, or double check). Certainly calling the HHW number should help him find places to dispose of commercially generated hazardous waste in the city.

When he cleans his oil-based supplies, he should not send the resultant solvents down the drain but rather collect them in a bucket, store them according to the instructions on the solvent container, and then bring them to HHW. If one must use the drain, even with latex-based paint, absolutely only use a drain that leads to a sewage treatment facility, never a storm drain. I’m sure your friend knows that already.

Latex paint is not considered hazardous waste unless it was made pre-1991, in which case it may contain mercury. Modern latex paint still contains volatile organic compounds, however, so use a mask and paint with the windows open and a fan going if you can. Some city recycling agencies run latex paint reuse and recycling programs, other agencies don’t want your old latex paint. You will need to further investigate Chicago’s situation, starting at Earth911.

Dealing with leftover latex paint is not too hard. First, of course, buy only the amount of paint you need for a job (use this handy calculator), and buy low-VOC paint if you can afford it. Several of the big-name paint manufacturers now carry a low-VOC line. If you cannot find a place to donate or recycle your unwanted paint (again, call the municipal recycling department), and you painted it on every conceivable surface, then let it dry out. A paint can 1/4 full will dry out if left open to evaporate. Pour larger amounts of paint little by little into a tray and mix it with kitty litter or sawdust until it solidifies. Paint dried in this way can be put in the garbage.

I hope there was some new information in there for your painting professional. I find that many city waste websites give good details on paint disposal, so anyone starting a major painting project should search for their local guidelines before starting to paint.