Clean Paint Brushes and Rollers Without Harming The Environment

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You’ve just finished that big paint job and it looks fantastic. Congrats! Now… what about those dirty paintbrushes, rollers, and paint cans? Well, if you used oil-based stains or latex paints, you can’t just hose them off and call it a day.

Even if the paint was VOC-free, it can still have chemicals that we don’t want seeping into the ground or into a storm drain. This untreated water can find its way into waterways after a rain, harming plants and animals and polluting your local water supply.

So, how can you clean or safely dispose of your paint brushes, rollers, and used paint cans? It’s pretty easy… it just depends on which type of paint you used. Natural paint has the fastest and easiest cleanup, while latex paint is a solid runner up. Oil-based paints require a little extra work.

In this article

Cleaning up natural paint

Natural paints refer to those made entirely from plants, minerals, clay, or milk-protein. So long as metallic or chemical-based dyes are not added to the base, these natural paints are completely non-toxic and biodegradable. As such, they do not require any special treatment for clean-up.

Simply rinse the paint brushes and empty cans in the sink or a bucket and you’re done. Wastewater from the buckets you used may also be safely poured onto the ground or down a drain.

Also read: Choosing Natural Paints For Your Home

Cleaning up latex paint

Latex (water-based) paints are safer for the environment than oil-based paints. That said, they are not as safe as natural paints, even if they are low-VOC or zero-VOC. That’s because low-VOC and Zero-VOC latex paints still contain harmful chemicals. As such, their cleanup should be treated the same as regular latex paint.

  • Use gloved hands or a wire paint comb to squeeze excess latex paint from the brush back into the can.
  • If the paint was dried onto the brushes, then soak them in water beforehand.
  • Squeeze the brushes again with a dry newspaper to remove more paint.
  • Rinse the brushes with warm soapy water.


Is your home on a septic tank?

If your home is connected to the municipal sewer system, you can wash latex paint brushes directly in the sink. But for septic tanks:

  • Use a small bucket to wash off the paint and a larger bucket to collect the dirty water after each rinse.
  • Let the paint water evaporate outdoors for several days or use sand or kitty litter to soak it up faster.
  • Discard dried latex paint and materials with regular household trash.

Cleaning up oil-based paints & stains

Oil-based paints and stains can add rich color and depth to a project, but their cleanup requires special care. This is because they are considered hazardous material and their improper cleanup can harm the local water supply and nearby plant and animal life.

The solvents you’ll need to clean oil-based paints can produce dangerous fumes, so prep your workspace outdoors or in a well-ventilated room.

  • Lay down a drop cloth to protect your flooring or the soil and wear rubber gloves to protect your hands.
  • Using a wire paint comb, scrape as much paint as possible back into the paint can.
  • Fill an old coffee can or clean paint can with a couple of inches of non-toxic solvent to soak the brushes. Swirl them around for 5 minutes, remove the brushes and comb any excess solvent back into the can.
  • Use paper towels or newspaper to gently blot the solvent from the paintbrushes. Then soak and blot 2-3 more times using a fresh container each time and lay the brushes out to dry.
  • Combine the used solvents into one container for discard or reuse.
    • If the solvent is water-based, let the water evaporate and discard the remaining paint solids in a sealed plastic bag. Then discard the solvent at a household hazardous waste center.
    • Or to reuse the solvent, let the paint solids settle for a few days. Once settled, pour the solvent through a coffee filter or non-food strainer into a glass jar. Wrap the remaining paint solids in plastic and discard them in the garbage.

Discarding paint rollers

This is pretty straightforward. Simply allow the paint to dry thoroughly. Once dry, wrap paint rollers in plastic and dispose of them in the garbage… regardless of the type of paint you’ve used.

Storing leftover paints

Store leftover paints in the smallest container possible in order to minimize airflow and prevent the paint from drying.

  • Clean the threads on the jar and lid so it will open more easily later.
  • Label the jar with the brand, color, date and the room or project it matches.
  • Store it in a dry location above freezing temperatures to help it last longer.
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