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New Life for Leftover Paint

Nancy Mullane

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Ready for recycling
(Nancy Mullane)
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It's a spring cleaning dilemma: What to do with all those cans of leftover paint stashed on shelves in the garage, or out in the storage shed in the backyard. You can't just throw them away in the garbage. In San Francisco, folks head to the Sunset Scavenger Recycling Center to donate their old paint to a good cause.

On a recent Saturday morning, Betsy Brown pulls up to the center and pops open the trunk. Workers lift out about a half-dozen cans -- the dried drips of soft-yellow and sky-blue paint down the sides and around the tops mirror the color of the walls back home.

"I'm happy both to get rid of it, and happy to know that someone who knows what to do with it is taking care of it for me," Brown says.

Michael Hoffman's car pulls up next. Workers ask him where his paint came from. "Some of it was left at my home by the seller... and then some of it's just accumulated over the years from painting rooms, and that sort of thing," he tells them.

By mid-morning, carts at the recycling center are stacked high with more than 100 cans of unused paint, bound for an unusual destiny.

Ten years ago, all of the latex paint turned over to the center would have been either incinerated or shipped to Los Angeles and used as an additive in sidewalk cement. But then one of the workers at the center, an immigrant from El Salvador, had an idea: Why not ship the good leftover paint to his home country, where it could be used to paint schools and hospitals?

Another immigrant worker at the center -- Ousmane Sy, originally from the African nation of Mali -- took up the idea and made it real. "I was born in Africa, raised in Africa, and I know how poverty is," he says. "I know have or have not, what that mean. And I knew from day one can make a lot of people smile and make a lot of people proud."

It's a question of money, too: It cost the same to ship the paint to Latin America or Africa as it was costing to ship it to Los Angeles and pay to turn it into cement. So over the past 10 years, the employee-owned company has shipped more than 25,000 gallons of recycled latex paint to El Salvador, Mexico and Tonga.

Sy often spends his own money and uses his vacation time to travel with the paint to its destination. His most recent trip was to his native Mali, where there are a growing number of orphanages.

"You got to see how that part of Africa been hit by the HIV-AIDS -- a lot of kids in orphanages. A lot," Sy says. "And the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) are doing what they can, the United Nations are doing what they can. The country are doing what they can. But they need help. And that's my way to tell them we care -- and putting a smile on those faces is priceless."

Processing the paint at the San Francisco facility can be a little messy. In an area that looks like a Jackson Pollack painting, workers wearing head-to-toe blue HazMat suits and face masks pry open each can of paint and look inside.

Speaking through his mask, Gustavo Munoz explains what they're looking for: If the paint is clean and has a smooth texture it can be recycled. So it doesn't all turn into a single blah brownish color, Munoz says they separate the paints into three color types -- off-whites, cool colors and warm colors.

When a barrel with "cool" colors is full, Munoz attaches a motor to the tip of a big paddle wheel sticking out of the top and mixes the colors together. Thirty minutes later, Munoz opens a tap at the bottom of the barrel and pours the soft moss-colored paint into brand-new five-gallon buckets. A sample of the color is dabbed onto the lids, and the buckets are stored.

Anyone can come and take the paint for free, and they do. But when the center reaches 2,000 gallons, Sy arranges to ship the paint to clients who request it. Sy says they take whatever colors they have, and they get creative with it.

"The folks who are getting the paint, they care less about the color -- red, green, white... They can mix them up, it's unbelievable. So the color it doesn't matter."

For the latest shipment, 23,000 gallons are loaded into a steel cargo container headed on a five-week journey to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. There, Cindy Threlkeld has been waiting for the paint to arrive.

"The delivery will be exciting," says Threlkeld, the country director for the Peace Corps in Zambia. "It will come first to Lusaka, and then we'll find a way to get it out to the volunteers."

Peace Corps volunteers work in remote villages with people who are desperately poor. "This paint is going to be able to allow the volunteers and the communities they're working with to be able to paint schools, and to paint their clinics, and to make their villages and their communities look nice and look neat -- and something they can be proud of."

Back at the recycling center workers, have already recycled and collected about 500 gallons of recycled latex paint. Sy says five countries have asked for the next shipment -- he's leaning towards sending it to Afghanistan later this summer.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Ratatat
    CD: Classics (xl)


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  • By Terina Chen

    From Baltimore, 04/06/2008

    I was so glad to hear of these efforts to recycle extra paint. As one who has painted every room in my house a different color (and overestimated my paint needs every time), I would love to find a way to pass on my paint to someone who wants it. Do you know of a similar effort in eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C. or thereabouts?

    By Frank Lester

    From San Francisco, CA, 04/05/2008

    I'm from San Francisco. In a month, I'll become a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia. The article warmed my heart. I look forward to see how the effort pays off.

    By Valerie Hink

    From Tucson, AZ, 04/05/2008

    Thank you for an inspiring story! It wove together my major passions: immigrants' creativity and their many contributions to the US, and creative, low-tech grass-roots solutions for environmental problems. When I reflect on all the immigrants like Ousmane Sy who contribute so much to our society and the global community, I feel much more optimistic about the world my children will inherit.

    By Joanne DeRossette

    From san diego, CA, 04/05/2008

    where do i find a paint 'recycling' center here in San Diego?

    By Deborah Dennert

    From St. Louis, MO, 04/05/2008

    What a wonderful story! Leave it to people who really know what poverty is to come up with a way of (1) helping their old communities and (2) recycling. I want to know how we can do it here in St. Louis as well. I commend these volunteers. We Americans waste so much more than we ever appreciate.

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